[sixties-l] Olympic History

From: Ron Jacobs (rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu)
Date: Mon Jul 24 2000 - 14:08:42 CUT

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    While watching the Red Sox this weekend, I noticed that more and more of
    the ads are mentioning/selling the Olympics, so I thought I'd send this out:

    Let the Games Begin
            This year the Olympics take place in Sydney, Australia. As anyone with a
    rudimentary knowledge of British colonial history knows, Australia began as
    a penal colony for the British Empire. To make room for its outcasts,
    Britain attempted to clear the land of its inhabitants, human and
    otherwise. Just as the indigenous Americans were slaughtered and pushed
    from their lands, so were the aboriginal peoples on the fifth continent.
    Likewise, many of those who survived the various assaults on their lands
    and people were "resettled" and their children were stolen. Once stolen,
    these innocents were stripped of their cultural identity via adoption and
    the white man's educational system, creating what Aboriginals now call the
    stolen generation.
            Over time, a movement demanding an apology and reparations to survivors of
    this crime against humanity has gathered steam in Australia. The members
    of the movement hope to use the Olympics as a forum for redress of their
    grievances-a truly uphill struggle given the general attitude of many in
    the Australian government who still don't understand the effects of their
    predecessors' policy and absolutely refuse to apologize. As a more cosmic
    justice would have it, however, one of Australia's most popular athletes,
    Cathy Freeman, is not only an Aboriginal, she is also a strong supporter of
    the movement calling for justice to the aboriginal peoples. Although
    Aboriginal activists have encouraged her to stay out of the developing
    fray, she recently spoke out, saying in an interview that appeared in the
    British paper the Sunday Telegraph: "I was so angry because they were
    denying they (the Australian government) had done anything wrong, denying
    that a whole generation was stolen." The calls for an apology and
    reparations are reminiscent of similar calls in this country for an apology
    and reparations to the descendants of those enslaved by the whites not so
    many generations ago. Likewise, the use of the Olympics as a forum for
    redress are reminiscent of the protest by African and African-American
    athletes before and during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

            The history of black athletes in white America reflects the history of
    African-Americans in general. Before the integration of pro sports, blacks
    had their own leagues in baseball and basketball. The Negro Baseball
    Leagues featured some of the best players in the sport and when the major
    leagues finally began to integrate, the Negro Leagues faded as black
    players were hired by teams in the majors. Boxing was the first sport to
    be infiltrated by blacks--although it too had its own association until the
    early 1900s. Jack Johnson was the Black boxing champion when he met the
    white boxing champion Tommy Burns in 1908 and beat him.
            The discrimination against African-American athletes was even worse in
    college athletics. Not only were black athletes prevented from attending
    white colleges, they did not compete against their athletic teams very
    often either. However, the sixties changed that. Along with integration
    came the first wave of African-American athletes playing for previously
    all-white college teams. Many of these athletes, like today, were not
    courted for their academic ability, but only for their athletic ability.
    Still, however, these young men did not get any full scholarships--these
    were reserved for white athletes. Also like today, graduation was not
    given much priority by the players' coaches or respective athletic
    departments. Blacks were forbidden from joining fraternities, subject to
    racist remarks and acts by fellow students and teammates, and due to their
    very small numbers, pretty much isolated. As Harry Edwards wrote in his
    book, The Revolt of the Black Athlete: "The only difference between the
    black man shining shoes in the ghetto and the black sprinter is that the
    shoeshine man is a nigger and the sprinter is a fast nigger."

            As part of an ongoing struggle for just treatment in US collegiate and
    other amateur competition, African American athletes and their supporters
    begin to consider a boycott of the 1968 Olympics under the auspices of a
    new organization called the Olympic Project for Human Rights. World-class
    runner Tommie Smith was quoted after some track and field trials early that
    year in Japan as stating that "there may be a boycott" when asked by a
    Japanese reporter
            Later that spring, Black students and athletes at San Jose State asked for
    better treatment. With the tutelage and complete support of Professor
    Harry Edwards (also an African-American), they met with the dean of
    students who told them to go away since he didn't have time to deal with
    such a small number of students (70 out of a total enrollment of 5000).
    With this rejection, the students began to plan for a rally on the first
    day of classes the next fall. The rally began with only 135 students: 100
    or so whites and 35 or so blacks, but by noon close to 700 were in
    attendance including faculty and staff. The demands of the rally were
    surprisingly mild:
    Public deliberation of all problems and proposed solutions relevant to the
    situation of minority gorups at SJS.
    Public pledges that no housing of any kind, including frats and sororities,
    will be open to all students wishing to live there.
    That all social and political organizations be open to all students and
    that this be proven by spring 1968.
    That all athletic recruits be treated the same in the recruiting process.
    That the athletic dept. disassociate itself from racist fraternities
    That the college provide tutoring to all those who desire it.
    That the student government be representative of all students, not just a
    corrupt group of racists.
    There was no response, so the first football game of the 1967 season was
    boycotted and picketed by black players and their supporters.
            On November 22 and 23rd, a national Black Youth Conference was held in Los
    Angeles--several college athletes attended and the boycott was discussed.
    UCLA basketball player Kareem Abdul Jabbar (who was still going by the name
    his parents had given him, Lew Alcindor) told why he supported the boycott:
    Everybody knows me. I'm the big basketball star, the weekend hero,
    everybody's All-American. Well, last summer I was almost killed by a
    racist cop shooting at a black cat in Harlem. He was shooting on the
    street--where masses of black people were standing around or just taking a
    walk. After all, we were just niggers. I found out last summer that we
    don't catch hell because we aren't basketball stars or don't have money.
    We catch hell because we are black. Somewhere each of us has got to make a
    stand against this kind of thing. This is how I make my stand--using what
    I have. And I take my stand here.

            In the weeks following the conference, Tommie Smith made public the
    contents of some of the hate mail he had been receiving for his comments
    regarding the Olympic boycott. In the meantime, the International Olympic
    Committee (IOC) invited the apartheid sports teams of South Africa to the
    1968 Olympics, prompting an immediate outcry and an expansion of the
    boycott call to include most of the African nations, all of the communist
    nations, and many non-aligned countries. Simultaneously, it was revealed
    in the press that Avery Brundage, the head of the IOC, was a part owner of
    a country club that forbade membership to Jews and blacks. Eventually, the
    IOC succumbed to the ever-growing international pressure and rescinded its
    invitation to South Africa.

            The American athletes vowed to continue the boycott, but it eventually
    fell apart--people were thinking of their careers and the harassment and
    intimidation was reaching the point where some of the athletes were
    receiving threats to their lives and the lives of their loved ones. An
    alternative path was decided on: no African-American athlete would take the
    victory stand when they won. Only weeks before the Olympics began, Mexican
    students took over the National University, supported by thousands of their
    countrymen and women. On October 12, ten days before the Games opened,
    Mexican security forces opened fire on a rally in the La Plaza de las Tres
    Culturas at Tlatelolco in Mexico City, killing hundreds. Although the
    harassment and intimidation of athletes supporting the boycott movement was
    not even close to the massacre of the students and their supporters, the
    intention was the same--to stifle protest. The Olympics almost didn't take

            On the first day of the competition two African American runners, Jim
    Hines and Charles Greene, won the 100-meter dash. When the two sprinters
    took the victory stand, neither man did anything but stand at attention as
    they received their medals while the US flag was raised. Then came the
    200-meter dash. Tommie Smith took the gold, John Carlos the bronze.
    Although they had been intimidated and harassed like the other athletes,
    when the US flag began rising up the flagpole and the anthem played, the
    two men bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists in a black
    power salute. The silver medalist was a runner from Australia named Peter
    Norman who wore the patch of the Olympic Committee for Human Rights
    (OCHR-sponsor of the boycott movement) in solidarity with Smith and Carlos.
            Within hours, the two African American men were expelled from the Olympic
    Village and were stripped of their medals. This was one of the decade's
    simplest and most effective protests. As the games continued, other
    athletes from a number of nations protested the treatment of the two in
    various ways. The results of the Olympic protest and the movement of black
    student athletes changed the world of black athletes in many ways, yet much
    remains to be resolved. It's somewhat ironic, although not necessarily
    surprising that, as African American athletes make more and more money,
    their solidarity with one another and with the rest of the African-American
    community seems to diminish.
            What were white student and amateur athletes doing? Well, for the most
    part, nothing. However there were a few individuals who worked with the
    OCHR and spoke out against the war and racism they saw on their campuses.
    When they did, they were often benched or kicked off the team. By 1970,
    however, these few individuals were joined by whole teams and, in some
    cases (like UC Berkeley) virtually the entire student athlete population.
    After Nixon invaded Cambodia and many of the nation's colleges and high
    schools went on strike, student athletes at UC Berkeley voted to protest en
    masse against the invasion. Then, following the murders of students at
    Kent and Jackson State later that spring, some teams cancelled workouts,
    while most wore black armbands during competitions and issued statements
    supporting the student strike as it spread across the land. In the Ivy
    Leagues, members of all eight schools' track and field teams issued a
    strong statement denouncing the war and the killings of students and the
    repression of the black liberation movement. The statement caused the Army
    and Navy teams to withdraw from the big springtime event.

            By the way, people are currently trying to start a new movement among
    athletes. I recently received an email talking about a conference organized
    by Sherman Teichman and his 30 students at Tufts University in
    Massachusetts, focusing on "Global Games: Sports, Politics and Society."
    Teichman hopes to create enough momentum to build what he was informally
    calling "Athletes for Social Responsibility," a new kind of organization
    for the 21st century to challenge the dominant values and politics of sports.
    -Ron Jacobs
    Burlington, VT.

    Ron Jacobs
    Burlington, VT

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