Tuesday, January 26, 2021
Black History: Political and social statements at the Olympics
By Jason Lewis (Sports Editor)
Published February 18, 2011

While silver medalist Lutz Long hailed Hitler, along with German officials and spectators, Jesse Owens saluted America at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. 

Tommy Smith (middle) and John Carlos (right) decided not to boycott the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.  Instead they raised one fist each to stand up for black rights. 


Jesse Owens, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos shocked the world with their Olympic performances and statements 

By Jason Lewis
Sports Editor

The Olympic games have been more then a venue for the world’s greatest athletes to showcase their talents.  The entire world is watching, so many individuals have been able to broadcast social and political statements to a much greater audience. 

That was the case in 1936 and in 1968, when Jesse Owens, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos sent shock waves around the world. 

The 1936 Olympic games in Germany was supposed to show that the dominance of Nazi Germany, and prove that the Aryan race was superior.  But Owens, the grandson of slaves, entered Hitler’s Coliseum in a racially charged environment and dispelled the notion that blacks were inferior to whites. 


Owens dominated the field, winning four gold medals (100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and 4×100 relay.) 

A black man out performing the “superior” white athletes on the world’s stage did not sit well with Hitler, and he refused to shake Owens’ hand after each gold medal victory. 

Owens single handedly proved that blacks could complete with and out perform whites.  But instead of being celebrated, he was snubbed. 

Owens major complaint was not that Hitler had refused to glorify his accomplishments, it was that he received little recognition from his own country.  He felt more slighted that he did not receive an invite to the White House from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

It was expected that Hitler would snub Owens, but to receive little notoriety from his homeland in the United States cut deep into him. 

Owens was quoted as saying, “After all those stories about Hitler and his snub, I came back to my native country and I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus,” Owens recalled.  “I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. Now what’s the difference?”

Owens was given a tickertape parade in New York, but when he arrived at the Waldorf Astoria hotel for a reception in his honor, he was instructed to take the service elevator rather than the normal guest elevator, which was reserved for whites.

Times were rough for Owens because he could not capitalize on his fame.  He was relegated to racing horses and other side show acts. 

“After I came home with my four medals, everyone wanted to slap me on the back, shake my hand or have me up to their suite. But no one was going to offer me a job,” Owens said. 

As the years went by racial tension became more intense in the United States with the Civil Rights era.  Heading into the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City, the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) was organized by sociologist Harry Edwards and others, and included athletes such as Tommie Smith. 

The aim of the OPHR was to protest racial segregation in the United States and elsewhere (such as South Africa), and racism in sports.  Most of the OPHR members were black athletes. 

The OPHR tried to organize a boycott of the 1968 Olympics, but black athletes, including Smith, still competed. 

After Smith won the 200-meter dash with a world record time, he and bronze medalist John Carlos shocked the world by taking their protest to the podium.  

The two athletes received their medals shoeless, but wearing black socks.

Carlos was quoted in 2003 saying, “We decided in that tunnel that if we were going to go out on that stand, we were going to go out barefooted.  We wanted the world to know that in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, South Central Los Angeles, Chicago, that people were still walking back and forth in poverty without even the necessary clothes to live.” 

Carlos wore black beads around his neck to represent the thousands of anonymous black Americans who were lynched at the hands of white racists.  Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride. 

Both athletes, and Australia’s Peter Norman, who won the silver medal, wore OPHR badges. 

As the Star Spangled Banner played, Smith and Carlos ignited the most politically potent protest in Olympics history.  Each of them bowed their heads as they raised one fist above their heads, while wearing a single black glove, to signify black power. 

Smith and Carlos made headlines around the world and their message of racial injustice was heard loud and clear. 

Smith and Carlos, just like Owens, left their mark on the Olympic games.  Owens used the Olympic games to show that blacks are not inferior to whites, and Smith and Carlos used the games to show that blacks did not have equality in the United States as well in other places in the world.        

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