The Year All Hell Broke Loose: The 1968 Olympic Games and the Politics of Performance

Curator's Note

The 1968 Mexico City Games, similar to every Olympiad before it and since, was a politically charged spectacle. Nations such as the United States, Mexico, the Soviet Union, and the People’s Republic of China all vied to assert and boast their country’s values, mores, and ideals based on the outcomes of particular events. The success of individual athletes would be cumulatively added to the overall medal count of their countries, which in turn would serve to validate and affirm the countries’ global position as either superior or inferior. However, for black athletes such as Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the Mexico City Games presented an opportune time and place to expose the plight of African Americans who were suffering under American policies that supported racial inequality, police brutality, and the abject poverty experienced by a majority of blacks.

Similar to the 1936 Berlin Games, where African American sprinter Jesse Owens’s gold medal performances in the 100 and 200 meters, the long jump, and the 4-by-100-meter relay were recognized to have symbolically unraveled Adolf Hitler’s ideology of the Aryan superman, the 1968 Summer Olympic Games proved to be an exercise in domestic and foreign policy for black athletes, who boldly broke with the American Olympic Committee’s demands for obedience and acquiescence. What is
more, through their explicit representation of displeasure and disgust with American race relations, Smith and Carlos would in fact argue that a majority of African Americans did not buy into the imagined sense of community promoted by the United States under the guise of friendly international sports competition.

Nevertheless, by the 1960s the political importance of black athletes as radical advocates of social change had evolved significantly from the stoic models of manhood and citizenship that Joe Louis and Jesse Owens represented during the 1930s, or the self-sacrificing martyrdom demonstrated by Jackie Robinson during the 1940s and ’50s, to explicit displays of resentment, disgust, and rage. Moreover, unlike their ancestors, the 1960s generation of African Americans had few illusions that they might achieve the so-called American dream, without simultaneously acknowledging—and protesting out loud—the reality of living in an American society that had never valued blacks as human beings. For Smith and Carlos, the overtly political atmosphere of the Mexico City Olympic Games juxtaposed against their victories in the 200-meter dash became the ideal backdrop to address the social, political, and economic realities that a majority of African Americans faced daily.

Exerpt from the forthcoming essay "The Strong Men Keep a Comin' On: African American Sports Participation and the Discourse of Public Dissent" in The Olympics and Philosophy (2012).


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