Updates on the war dominate the world press and social media.
We watch and read as ground troops look to encircle and advance on the city of Kyiv. Shells and bombs rain down, fires rage, smoke billows from mangled buildings. Civilians, those yet to evacuate, shelter grimly in basements and underground stations. Despite spirited, defiant home resistance, the unrelenting, merciless Russian invasion of Ukraine continues.
Given the circumstances, one may certainly be forgiven missing a sporting milestone. On March 11, Gregg Popovich, coach of the San Antonio Spurs and already the architect of five NBA championships in a storied career, moves into first place for all-time regular season victories.
Still, accolades aside, it is Popovich’s moral code which truly inspires. Never one to shirk responsibility or fail to voice his opinions, he lets fly at the systemic racism still prevalent in America. Not mincing words, he labels his country, under the leadership of Donald Trump, “an embarrassment to the world.”
In contrast, asked to reflect on the life and achievements of Martin Luther King, Popovich outlines race and bigotry as “unanswered dilemmas” that the courageous King refused to ignore.
The references take me back in time, to an initial lesson in race relations as a young boy of ten.
If the idiom “like father, like son” is actually true, I follow in my father’s footsteps as a lover of all things sporting. Once a decathlete and then a highly respected coach, he has a deep knowledge of and interest in Track and Field. This scrutiny extends to all major competitions, including, of course, the Olympic Games.
Every month, the two of us eagerly await delivery of a large, brown manila envelope. It houses the latest edition of Track and Field News. I devour every issue of “the Bible”, as the publication outlines athletics in the USA from high school through to national level. Even better, it covers the sport, in considerable depth, at international level.
Indeed, its panel of experts produces highly detailed USA and world rankings. Also introduced are many of the now standard abbreviations, such as WR = World Record, AR = American Record.
The information is vital, as my father and I make a friendly wager. Each of us will look to handicap every event at the upcoming Games, then compare notes. Family bragging rights are at stake.
October 1968 duly arrives. Mexico becomes the first Latin American country to host the quadrennial. The excitement builds, the sprints particularly intriguing given the quality of the fields, the altitude, the move from cinder to an all-weather track, and the hi-tech electronic timekeeping equipment.
There is furious debate over who will capture gold medal in the Men’s 200m. While my father plumps for John Carlos, winner of the USA trials, I lean towards another American, Tommie Smith, the 1967 and 1968 AAU champion.
After moving smoothly through the heats and semis, both qualify for the final. Smith in lane 3, Carlos immediately outside him. Carlos explodes out of the blocks, chewing up the ground. Yet, on entering the home straight, Smith unleashes a stunning turn of speed, effortlessly pulling away from his competitors to win the gold medal in a blistering 19.83 seconds. A startled Carlos cannot recover (20.10), even slipping to third place behind Australian Peter Norman (20.06).
Of course, it is the subsequent events that cause an uproar, the medal ceremony following the race taking a deserved place in history as a stirring symbol of political activism and racial discrimination.
Smith and Carlos arrive at the podium. Both display human rights badges. Both wear black socks, without shoes, to highlight poverty. Smith flaunts a black scarf, aimed in protest at the lynching of blacks. Carlos, ignoring Olympic etiquette, features an unzipped USA track suit top and beads. Then, as the Star-Spangled Banner plays, both lower their heads and defiantly raise a black gloved fist. They draw attention to the hypocrisy of a country that proclaims to uphold freedom and equality but neglects to protect the basic rights of black Americans.
Norman is involved as well, sporting his own human rights decal. Indeed, it is he who suggests the American duo wear one glove each, Carlos having forgotten to bring his pair.
The response is swift and severe. IOC president Avery Brundage orders Smith and Carlos suspended from the USA team and banned from the Olympic Village. In the end, both are expelled from the Games.
Norman also pays a stiff price, ostracized by sections of the Australian media and public for the rest of his life, and harshly reprimanded by his country’s Olympic authorities.
I am confused as to why, though my father does his best to explain. He tells me Smith and Carlos, as African Americans, raise their gloved fists in support of Black Power and to highlight other critically important social issues. That the recent assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, as well as outcries against the war in Vietnam, are part of an ever-growing civil rights movement.
He then goes further, informing me that Smith and Carlos even planned to boycott the 1968 Olympics, but eventually chose to compete in order to target oppression, raise racial awareness, and improve the treatment of black athletes and coaches. And that the two athletes were deeply affected by the struggle of Mexican university students that summer, a saga that ended in the infamous Tlatelolco massacre.
While other details of the discord, its roots, and its aftermath, escape me, the photograph of the three medalists never does. For a sheltered youngster living on the west coast of Canada, it is my first real taste, and a constant reminder, of highly polarized reactions and the fact that not all is well with the world.
50 years pass by. Older, hopefully wiser, I am now better informed about the various issues and actions for which Smith and Carlos were, in some quarters still are, vilified.
Indeed, as Popovich suggests, similar racial issues and deep economic and social disparities continue to exist. Not only in America but all across the globe.
Progress has been and is being made, but there is still such a long way to go. In this regard, as Smith and Carlos clearly demonstrated and as I was quick to learn, sporting activism can play a significant role.