One of the biggest political statements in the long and storied history of the modern Olympic games took place on this day 45 years ago in Mexico City.
Tommie Smith of the US won the 200 metres sprint final and broke the world record in the process with a time of 19.83 seconds. He was joined on the podium after the race by compatriot John Carlos who finished in the bronze medal position with a time of 20.10 seconds, while Australia’s Peter Norman was second with 20.06.
The American duo approached the podium without shoes, wearing just black socks on their feet to represent black poverty. Smith also wore a black scarf to represent black pride while Carlos donned a necklace of beads which he later explained "were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred.”
As the Star-Spangled Banner played and the medallists turned to face their flags, Smith and Carlos each raised a fist with a black glove on and kept them raised for the entire duration of the national anthem.
As they left, they were booed by the crowd.
Smith raised his right hand while Carlos raised his left. This is reportedly because Carlos forgot to bring his own pair of black gloves, with both Americans planning to bring gloves to the event. Silver-medallist Norman suggested that they share Smith’s pair of gloves. Norman wore a Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, as did Smith and Carlos, because he was a critic of the White Australia Policy.
All three men were ostracized by their nation’s media. International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Avery Brundage deemed it to be a domestic political statement unfit for the apolitical, international forum the Olympic Games were supposed to be.
In response to their actions, he ordered Smith and Carlos suspended from the US team and banned from the Olympic Village. When the US Olympic Committee refused, Brundage threatened to ban the entire US track team. This threat led to the two athletes being expelled from the Games.
Bundrage had nonetheless defended displays of the Nazi salute at the Berlin Olympics when he was president of the US Olympic Committee in 1936.
Smith and Carlos went on to play in the NFL after continued success in athletics, and have since worked with schools and in diplomatic roles.
Norman, meanwhile, was not picked for the 1972 Games despite having qualified 13 times over. He passed away in 2006, and both Smith and Carlos served as pallbearers at his funeral.
Smith wrote in his autobiography Silent Gesture that it was not a ‘Black Power’ salute but a ‘human rights salute’. Either way, the gesture’s cultural impact spread across sport and into music and other arts in the decades since.