From raising your fist at the 1968 Olympics to kneeling: The history of racial justice protests within sport


1968 was six months after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. Tommie Smith, John Carlos and John Cox stepped up to the podium in Mexico City to accept their Olympic medals.

Although they had won bronze and gold in the 200m, neither man was wearing shoes.

They bowed their heads as the US national anthem played. In what has become an iconic image, they raised their gloved fists to protest social injustice.

Black-American poverty was represented by the black socks and no shoes, and Black-American unity and strength is symbolized by the gloves

They were both expelled from the Games, and they received death threats.

“I went there as a dignified Blackman and said: What’s happening is wrong’,” Carlos stated in a 2008 interview.


In Tokyo 2020, we will celebrate unity in diversity

“Unity in Diversity” is still the guiding principle of the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Rule 50 of International Olympic Committee’s (IOC), Olympic Charter still prohibits protests at the podium. However, recommendations by human rights experts have extended athlete’s rights to voice their opinions.

This allowed Great Britain’s women to take the knee before their first match against Chile to highlight racial inequalities and discrimination.

However, during Olympics trials in June, US hammer thrower Gwen Berry was criticised for not looking at the flag while standing on the podium during national anthem.


Lori Latrice Martin, Associate Professor of Sociology at Louisiana State University, is the author of White Sports/Black Sports. She explains the history and evolution of social justice protests in sport, as well as whether the Olympics is moving forward since 1968.


It is common to see athletes taking the knee. What is the source of this?

Black athletes have a long tradition of using their positions to raise awareness about social justice issues. Let’s go back to 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Tommie Smith, John Carlos and others decided to protest racial injustices by raising their fists on the podium. There have been many athletes who have used their platform throughout history, including Muhammad Ali and his contemporaries, such as American footballer Jim Brown or basketball player Kareem Abdel-Jabbar.

In 2016, American footballer Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel and protest the national anthem. Although many people associate the national anthem and patriotism with the military, it is actually a moment in which everyone is engaged in the same activity, with their eyes on the flag.

Martin Luther King said that protests are meant to disrupt business as usual, cause people to feel uncomfortable, and create a sense crisis. Many of these athletes are doing exactly that when they take a knee. This is happening all over the world – people are realizing that social issues such as race and inequalities, in general, are not just a problem in America but a global problem.


Is this going to be a more frequent protest at the Olympics?

It will be fascinating. It will all depend on how each person does it, and how the Olympic Committee responds. We have seen the stories of people such as Gwen Berry, and how they were hurt by her efforts to bring attention to social justice issues during playing the anthem. It’s difficult to predict.

Protests aren’t meant to be scheduled and they can’t be made at a convenient time. We might find that people find new ways to draw attention to racial inequalities in sports and other areas. It might not be during the national anthem. They may feel it as they line up for a race, or they might be wearing something else.

Sport can unify nations and bring people together.

Sport can unify a country, a nation or even the entire world. It can also be a dividing factor. This has been proven time and again.

Sport can be used in many ways to favor certain groups. For example, ticket prices. Professional sports were once available to both working-class and lower-class people back in the day. Even in the ‘nosebleed’ section, it is difficult to get a seat. Sport can actually increase the inequalities in society.


Why is racism still a problem in sport?

Once we have systems and structures that are race-based, it is easy to see how sport can be institutionalized and perpetuate racism. There has been much attention paid to rules regarding swim caps at the Olympics. Although it may seem that the rules regarding acceptable swim caps are non-racial, there are many dress codes. They can have a negative effect on one group relative to the other, due to changes in participation. Technology changes may occur, but they don’t always keep up with the rules.

For example, if you see more Black women swimming well, or more Black people overall, then that can have a negative effect on Black people. It also raises questions about what we consider desirable and beautiful, as well as stereotypes and ways to make Black people look bad based on their hairstyles. These things do not happen in isolation. It’s important that you understand all the ways society’s various “isms” affect sport.


What is the difference between ‘white’ and ‘black’ sports?

It is partly due to the stereotypical views that people have of certain groups. It is common to believe that Black men and boys excel in basketball, which requires more speed and agility. Some believe this is due to biological differences. Others think that Black men may be more likely to succeed in football and basketball. Perhaps Black women are more suited to track and field than for lacrosse and field hockey. We must look back at the history of policies and procedures. For example, there were times when Black men couldn’t play pro basketball with white men and where Black women couldn’t play professional tennis with white ladies. These factors have an impact on the sports people choose to play.

Many economically disadvantaged communities don’t have many sports programs so swimming and hockey are not common in their schools. These sports are not being taught to children in physical education classes. Many of the baseball fields that once dotted the American South have vanished. It’s no coincidence, then, that Black baseball players have disappeared.

These things all interconnect and it’s more than just about people being able to succeed in one sport. It’s much more complex. It’s all about having access to various facilities and the opportunity structure. It’s all about who you know. Although someone may be gifted, no one will ever find out about it because they aren’t participating in amateur athletic leagues.


Are we making progress since the 1968 Olympics in terms diversity in sport?

I am cautiously optimistic. I love Derrick Bell and his work on racism realism. He talks about America’s permanent subordination to Black people and questions efforts to use courts to achieve racial equality. Because historically, race has been an important part of American society. He also discusses what he refers to as ‘peaks of Progress’. These are moments in American history when there is tension over social justice and racial inequalities. These moments are when people show an interest in creating a more equitable society. This is what happened at the Civil War’s end and after George Floyd’s death.

Unfortunately, people forget to make social justice a priority over time, even though Blacks and other people of color continue to suffer. History has shown us that not all people are actively involved in social justice issues. They turn their attention to other things. The nation and the world will not pay attention to racial injustices again until they have another instance like George Floyd’s murder or any other manifestation of racism. It remains to be seen. However, many people, including me, believe that there has been an increase in voices, particularly after the death of George Floyd.

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