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Down Mexico way

08/07/2012

A few months ago someone asked me if I was going to the Olympics. After all, they’re right on my doorstep in that there London. In typically miserable fashion I responded with something along the lines of “the nearest I’ll get to the Olympic games is the trip to Rushall Olympic”, a reference to FC United of Manchester’s trip to the West Midlands back in March to play Rushall Olympic in the Northern Premier League. In a sporting context, it was about as far from the gloss and sparkle of the London 2012 games as you could possibly get. An awful match played out in a force eight gale on a pitch resembling a ploughed field. The pre-match chips and mushy peas were, however, spot on. Now the London 2012 games are here. Indeed, the Olympic site is precisely 4.8 miles from where I’m now tapping away on a keyboard. I’ll write something about the games in a future blog. First, I wanted to say a few words about a superb Olympic-related film that was released in July to coincide with the Olympic and Paralympic games.

I attended a preview screening of the film Salute, four weeks ago, at the University of Westminster’s Regent Street cinema. The venue itself has considerable history. In the 1890s, it was used as a cinematic guinea pig as the Lumiere brothers showed films here before screening them in Paris, thus making it the oldest cinema in the country. The film is a documentary about the men’s 200 metres final in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. In attendance to answer any questions after the film was one of the protagonists, Dr Tommie Smith.

The medal ceremony for the men’s 200 metre final produced one of the most iconic images in sport as Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won the gold and bronze medals, stood on the podium and gave a clenched fist salute during the US national anthem. The film was made by Matt Norman, the nephew of the winner of the silver medal, the Australian sprinter Peter Norman. Although Norman didn’t raise a fist he nevertheless supported the protest of Smith and Carlos and wore the badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, as did the other two runners.

The salute was referred to as the “black power” salute and was considered to be a gesture of solidarity with the struggle for civil rights back home in the USA. These were troubled times for the black community in the USA, coming only a few months after the assassination of Martin Luther King. But there was much more to it than that. Tommie Smith said that it was a gesture to show solidarity with people across the globe, of all colours and nationalities, engaged in the struggle for human rights. Like 2012, there was a lot to get angry about in 1968; the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle in the US, the Prague Spring, student riots in Paris, apartheid in South Africa and the start of the troubles in Northern Ireland.

The athletes were booed by the crowd as they left the podium. The reaction of the US athletics team was to send Smith and Carlos home. Back home they were subject to abuse and numerous death threats. Neither of them ever competed for the US again. Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), described the incident as “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit”. The very same man who had made no objection to Nazi salutes at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

Peter Norman was similarly ostracized by the Australian authorities and was not chosen for the 1972 Australian Olympic team. This despite being, by some considerable distance, the country’s strongest sprinter and having achieved the qualifying times for the 100 and 200 metre events thirteen times during that season. The Australian team had no competitor in the men’s 100 and 200 metre events in Munich. Years later when the Olympics were held in Sydney, Peter Norman was not invited to any of the official functions. However, he eventually received an invitation to an event held by the USA team. There’s a lovely passage in the film where Norman explains how uneasy he was about accepting the invite. After all, who’s going to recognise this Aussie runner from 1968? Once he got there though, he was bowled over to have the likes of Michael Johnson and Ed Moses come up to him and describe him as one of their heroes.

The 1968 Olympic 200 metres final had been one the fastest races in history. Tommie Smith had won the race in a time of 19.78 seconds and both Norman and Carlos recorded times of less than 20 seconds. At that point in time, Smith held the US records over 100, 200 and 400 metres. In addition he set seven world records in his career and still ranks high on world all-time lists. Yet today he is not recognised in the US athletics hall of fame. Not one mention.

The Olympics were founded on the principles of international cooperation and peace. But what they are, above all else, is a sporting competition and a chance for many athletes to enter the spotlight. Smith, Carlos and Norman decided that they wanted to use their moment in the spotlight to show their support for the global struggle for human rights. They were the fastest men in the world. As they stood on the podium receiving their medals and basking in the applause of the crowd and worldwide television coverage, they seemingly had the world at their feet. But in one silent courageous gesture they threw all that away. Months later, Tommie Smith was still having trouble finding work and ended up washing cars. Imagine Usain Bolt back home in Jamaica working in a car wash because he couldn’t find any other work.

The athletes at the 2012 Olympics were warned months in advance that any form of political protest at the London games would be similarly dealt with in the harshest possible terms. In terms of world events there are many similarities between 1968 and 2012. The London Olympics are being played out whilst civil war rages in Syria and north Africa and the Middle East struggle to come to terms with the Arab Spring of 2011. The last year has seen the birth of the Occupy movement seeking alternatives to rampant free market capitalism and striving for a more equal society. In many countries trade unions are leading the fight back against the austerity measures adopted by governments as a response to the global financial crisis. And there is the continued struggle to raise awareness of the dangers of climate change and global warming. But would any athlete be prepared to sacrifice the glory and the associated financial gain that goes with being an Olympic champion to make a stand on any of these issues? Particularly in an era of huge sponsorship deals that ensure that sports stars become financially secure for life. To lose a sponsorship deal would be like throwing millions of pounds down the drain.

An Observer article on Jess Ennis, after her magnificent gold medal performance in the heptathlon, described her as unlikely “to pontificate on matters social and political”. Is this a good thing? Would you rather sports stars tweet nonsense about Corrie or Eastenders or would you prefer to hear what they have to say, for instance, about the role that sport can play in helping children from under-privileged backgrounds? And how sporting facilities are often the first to be hit by council cutbacks in times of austerity?

Sadly I’m not sure that many of today’s sports stars are sufficiently aware of social and political issues to contribute much to any debate. When you hear of the extent to which top athletes devote themselves to training for major events like the Olympics it is clear that, to a certain extent, their lives are lived in a one dimensional bubble where almost everything they do is programmed to deliver peak performance in an event that may be months, even years, away. Do they even get time to read newspapers or watch the television news? Some of the comments on Twitter by a few of the nation’s favourite sports stars during last year’s riots were almost comical in their inability to comprehend what was going on.

According to the British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) organisation the majority of Team GB’s 542 competitors at the 2012 games are either graduates or current students. This includes 62 of the 78 members of the athletics team (79%) and 90% of the rowing team. The percentage for the UK population as a whole is 25%. Therefore, in general, the British Olympic team is a good deal more educated than the population as a whole. Higher education is meant to produce well rounded individuals who are able to make an informed contribution to matters outside their own sphere of expertise. There should be no excuses for not being aware of what’s going on in the wider world.

Does a political statement have any place in the Olympic games or in sport in general? Well, globalisation means that we are all political animals. Decisions that we take each day, no matter how trivial they may appear, help to shape the kind of world we live in; who we bank with, what we eat and drink, what clothes we wear, how we travel to work etc. It’s a great shame that so many choose to hide behind the cloak of top flight sport and pretend that the social and political issues of the day have nothing to do with them. The view that “we’re only sportsmen” should not absolve anyone of their responsibility to think independently. As John Abrahams, the former Lancashire cricket captain said during the acrimonious debates about unofficial cricket tours to South Africa in the 1980s “I’m a human being first, then a sportsman”.

Personally, I’d love to hear Mo Farah raising awareness of the plight of many millions of asylum seekers and refugees across the world. Or Bradley Wiggins questioning why, on the night of the Olympic games opening ceremony, 182 cyclists on the monthly Critical Mass bike ride were arrested close to the Olympic stadium. Or any of the formula one motor racing drivers inquiring as to the ethics of staging a race in Bahrain at a time when peaceful protest was being quelled by violence. It doesn’t have to be anywhere near as dramatic as the salute at the Mexico games. A few thoughtful words would suffice. Sadly, it’s about as likely as Sir Alex Ferguson speaking out about the damage inflicted on Manchester United Football Club by the Glazer family. I’m not holding my breath.

If you get the opportunity to see Salute in the next few weeks then please take it. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be on at any of the big multiplexes but there are a number of smaller independent cinemas around the country that are screening it. And I think it’s already out on DVD. It’s a wonderful tale of sporting courage that we probably won’t see the like of again. And it was a privilege to have seen it in the company of Dr Tommie Smith.

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From → Culture, Politics, Sport

One Comment
  1. Peter Chapman permalink

    I recall a recent runners world article going in to detail about the medal ceremony and the aftermath, incredible stuff really!!

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