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Black power

U.S. sprinters stand up for civil rights in 1968 in Mexico City

Smith, center, and Carlos, right, raise their fists in protest.

(CNN) -- As an event attracting worldwide attention and mass media coverage, it is perhaps not surprising that the Olympics have, over the course of their history, served as a platform for all manner of political statements and protests.

From the Nazis' manipulation of the 1936 Berlin Games to promote the myth of white Aryan supremacy, through to Cathy Freeman's iconic parading of the aboriginal flag at Sydney 2000, politics and the Olympics have never been too far apart, despite the best efforts of the International Olympic Committee to keep the competition rigorously neutral.

Of all the many occasions on which the Games have been used as a stage for political dissent, however, few, if any, were as powerful, or as eloquent, as the moment at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics when U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the winner's podium and gave a Black Power salute in protest at continued racial oppression in their native America.

The action had its roots in the formation the previous year of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR).

Inspired by the growing U.S.Black Power movement, the Project's aim was to encourage black American athletes to boycott the 1968 Games as a means of highlighting American civil rights abuses.

As its founding statement declared: "We must no longer allow this country to use a few so-called Negroes to point out to the world how much progress she has made in solving her racial problems when the oppression of Afro-Americans is greater than it ever was."

Although the boycott itself failed to materialize, the OPHR's ideals were not forgotten by many of the black athletes who went to Mexico City, among them Smith and Carlos, both OPHR members.

When both men won medals in the 200 meters -- Smith the gold, Carlos the bronze -- they determined to hold a non-violent protest to draw attention to the plight of their fellow black Americans (the timing was especially poignant since Martin Luther King, the leader of the U.S. Civil Rights movement, had been assassinated only six months previously).

Olive branch

The two sprinters took to the winner's podium shoeless, wearing black socks (to represent the poverty of Afro-Americans), black scarves (to symbolize the horror of lynchings) and black gloves (as a mark of black unity and strength). Smith also carried a box containing an olive branch as an emblem of peace.

As the American flag was raised and the national anthem played they held up their fists -- Smith his right, Carlos his left -- in a Black Power salute.

Beside them silver medallist Peter Norman, a white Australian, sported an OPHR patch in order to show solidarity with their actions.

"I just couldn't salute the flag in the accepted manner," Smith later said, "because it didn't represent me fully, only asking me to be great on the track and then obliging me to come home and be just another nigger."

Although the protest was both dignified and peaceful, it provoked instant outrage among the U.S. athletics authorities. Smith and Carlos were suspended from their national team, stripped of their medals and expelled from the athletes' village.

The response back in America was even more hysterical. The Los Angeles Times condemned the athletes for what it described as a 'Nazi-like salute,' while Time Magazine ran a picture of the Olympic logo with the traditional Olympic motto "Faster, Higher, Stronger" replaced by the words "Angrier, Nastier, Uglier." Both men's families received death threats.

If there was anger, however, there was also widespread admiration for the men's courage in daring to defy Olympic protocol.

Mohammed Ali described it as "the single most courageous act of this century," while Wyomia Tyus, anchor of the U.S. women's gold-medal winning 4x100 meter relay team, dedicated the team's victory to the two ostracized sprinters.

Despite that, both men's athletics careers were badly damaged by their protest.

Although his 200-meters winning time set a new world record that was to stand for 11 years Smith never ran for the U.S. again, and was eventually forced to give up athletics and turn to American football instead.

Carlos was also cold-shouldered by the U.S. sporting establishment, and for years struggled to land a proper job

Neither, however, have any regrets about their iconic protest.

"I had no regrets, I have no regrets, I will never have any regrets," Smith said. "We were there to stand up for human rights and to stand up for black Americans. We wanted to make them better in the United States.''

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