Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Almost Boycott of 1968 Olympics

As a student of history, I have to admit that I have been enjoying watching the television show Madmen not just for the drama but for the history. The attention to detail is impeccable. When they turn on their black and white television sets, with the rabbit ear antennae, that white dot slowly comes on the screen and takes a few seconds for the picture to appear. I love it. As I watch season six, with the storyline based in 1968 (one of the US's most turbulent years), I observe some the best television characters ever created reflect on their current events: assassinations, violence at the Democratic convention, the Vietnam war and pot smoking in the office. I was three years old when this unfolded, but I feel like I am sharing the experience now. If the novel is the great art form of the 20th Century, then surely television will be the 21st Century's. Don Draper is our Gatsby, as complex and as relevant our era as any Fitzgerald, Hemingway or Salinger character.

With the Winter Olympic in Sochi starting tomorrow, I have to wonder, will the events of 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City be mentioned on Madmen. Don't tell me, I plan to watch it as soon as my wife gets home. The Olympic Project for Human Rights was founded by UC Berkley sociology professor Harry Edwards. Its intention were to organize the American black athletes to boycott the Olympics. The most famous of them was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (named Lew Alcindor at the time), but they were supported by Jesses Owens, Jackie Robinson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  The five demands were: 1) the removal of racist IOC president Avery Brondage, 2) a retraction of Rhodesia and South Africa invitation to the games, 3) reinstating of Muhammed Ali's boxing title, 4) hiring more African-American coaches and 5) ending the "whites only" policy at the New York Athletic Club. South Africa and Rhodesia were disinvited but that had happened before the demands were made.  None of the others were met and the athletes went anyway. They were urged to find some individual gestures of protest. In this video King mentions six demands but I could only find five.

The US received 45 gold medals in that Olympics, ten of them were by black athletes setting seven world records (including the famous Bob Beamon long jump). The only protesters were Tommie Smith and John Carlos who placed first and third in the 200 meter run. Smith wore a black glove on his right hand, Carlos on his left. They raised their hands with the Black Power symbol. They also wore no shoes to symbolize poverty, they wore beads to protest lynchings and an Olympics Projects for Human Rights button. Instead of looking at the flag while the national anthem played, they bowed their heads. They were suspended from the team, thrown out of Olympic Village and had to go home but could keep their medals because the US wanted to count them in the medal count.

The reaction from home is what you'd expect, America hasn't changed much. The worst thing that was said in the media was by sport broadcaster, Brent Musburger, called them a pair "dark skinned storm troopers." This was before Star Wars, so storm trooper was still associated with German soldiers. They received tons of hate mail and death threats. Tons of problems followed including social isolation and loss of employment bottoming out with Carlos' wife's suicide in 1977.  

I don't know if this is a big enough event to appear in Madmen, but it is just a reminder that I am glad I am not old enough to remember 1968.

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