Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete: The 1968 Olympic Protests and Their Aftermath
A book, certainly, not for everyone…an almost absurdly over the top intellectual look into the factors, personalities and social climate of the black athlete and black activism in the mid to late 1960s, and how these events ultimately resulted in Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’s iconic 1968 Mexico City Olympic 200 meter victory stand human rights protest. In this work by Douglas Hartmann, a professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota, we’re bludgeoned to death with the history of this movement by virtually all levels of didactic academia, if for no other reason than his own intent to direct his narrative toward senior university level scholars. For the common reader however, it quickly becomes annoyingly repetitive, overtly present in its pedantic style while drawing conclusions that are so ensconced in unceasingly cerebral minutiae that it most often seems that Hartmann has some vapid urge to unload his highbrow intellect. This is unfortunate because when he sticks to writing facts, he has a unique talent for thoroughness and pace.
This isn’t to say that this work is completely without merit…to the contrary, Hartmann takes on the very complex burden of recounting precisely what occurred both socially and politically in the lead up to the epochal Olympic demonstration. Concentrating largely on the proposed boycott of the 1968 games by U.S. black athletes, led initially by a young San Jose State University sociologist by the name of Harry Edwards, we get this exceedingly detailed account of literally each early step taken to publicize their fledgling attempts to organize amid all its previously preemptive attempts. For example, few people today may know that a boycott had been in serious discussion from as far back as the 1964 Games in Tokyo or that nationally famous black track athletes, sprinters Tommie Smith and Lee Evans in particular, had become very vocal in the media about the dichotomy of the United States relying heavily upon their talents to win at international sports events while they and their families were treated literally inhumanely back home, from as far back as 1966.
But then onto the scene came Edwards and he quickly became the spark that re-ignited awareness and protest while taking it to another level altogether. Organizing the OCHR (Olympic Committee for Human Rights), this 6’ 8” 300 lb. man is able to not only get the attention of the “on the fence” athletes, but of non-athletic activists and, importantly, politicians. Making threats, leading rallies and giving speeches, Edwards manages to raise this potential boycott to a firestorm of controversy and concern all the way up to the countries’ leaders. Hartmann, here quoting largely from Edwards 1970 published memoir, The Revolt of the Black Athlete, mixes the facts and the timeline (good) with idealistic interpretations and conclusions (bad) that drive the reader to often skip large paragraphs of his (Hartmann’s) rhetoric to get back to what was to occur next. But, again, even as the next event unfolded, it was again followed by more lecturing, much of it repeated from pages just past. Please understand that I truly enjoy an intellectual look at any significant situation or topic, especially meaningful history, but this stuff was oftentimes just painful:
“At the core of the conviction that sport promotes and ensures salutary social results is the theory of culture, sport and social order bequeathed by the founder of the Olympic restoration, Pierre de Coubertin, to the modern Olympic movement: namely, that mutual respect flows from mutual knowledge and understanding, both of which flow from social interaction. All social goods, in short, are thought to emerge naturally and inevitably out of human connection, interaction and even competition. This idea was – and is – grounded, in both conception and practice, in a thoroughly Durkheimian theoretical logic: that “social density” is thought to lead automatically to “moral order” through the process of communication and understanding cultivated in and through social interaction. This is what John MacAloon, redeploying a famous phrase from anthropologist Levy-Bruhl, calls Olympic sport’s “participation mystique.”
Unfortunately, we’re exposed to much more of this than the factual account and I’ll say again that it is a shame because Hartmann is a damned fine chronicler of the events…his coverage of the 200 meter qualifying heat drama is infectious (Carlos clearly stepped out of his lane while winning his qualifying race while Smith severely injures his thigh winning his, rendering a potential finals without either). His buildup to and precise coverage of the 200 meter final is fantastic. The exacting details of Smith’s and Carlos’s post-race actions, along with, surprisingly, second place finisher Peter Norman’s (Carlos, while looking around at the finish of the race was nipped by Norman and finished third) urge to participate in some way (the only thing that I’ll say about this is to look very closely at “the” picture of Smith and Carlos with their fists raised high and see the commonality with what they are wearing and what Norman is wearing…here’s a hint: it’s on each racer’s jacket) was also very revelatory.
Finally, his work on Lee Evans 400 meter individual final and 400 meter relay final and the much awaited victory stand outcome for both is written in superbly rich and humanistic perspective, with unique insight from Evans these many years later. These episodes and his then opaque coverage of the after-effects of the demonstrations are almost worth plowing through the previous (and I’m afraid through the closing as well) verbose intelligentsia. But perhaps Hartmann’s high point in this work is displayed in the following outtake:
“…the gesture was full of paradox and ambiguity: at once subversive and respectful, silent but resounding, seemingly empty of political content, on the one hand, yet packed with meaning and significance on the other.
In many cases, such opacity would be the mark of confusion, expressive inefficiency, or a more basic indecisiveness. But my reading in this instance is quite the opposite. I believe that this very ambiguity constitutes the final portion of brilliance and meaning contained in their gesture. Standing on the victory stand with clinched fists jutting powerfully over silently bowed heads, Smith and Carlos captured, in a single and singularly powerful gesture, the complicated, controversial, and contradictory constellation of racial experiences, ideologies and political programs swirling around them, in sport and in society at large and in the relations between sport and society. They made race a problem that could not be dismissed or avoided.”
For those not aware, San Jose State University commissioned a statue to Smith and Carlos in 2005, showing the full 1968 victory stand pose that stands currently in the center of the campus. Peter Norman’s second place spot is left vacant, by his request, and a small plaque is there representing the movement that brought Smith and Carlos to this moment…”Take A Stand” is what it says. But ever since I’ve read the above paragraph from this otherwise highly frustrating and demonically difficult book to get through, I believe that something this beautiful and profound deserves to be displayed there as well.