Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos shocked the world when they threw up a Black Power fist while being awarded at the podium during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. The photograph of the Black track and field stars was taken right after their impressive win in the competition’s 200-meter race. Smith struck gold and Carlos took home bronze, but the historic moment wasn’t just about their stellar performance or a fancy photo op. The two sprinters used their opportunity on the world’s biggest athletic stage to address civil rights in the Black community and human rights at large.
Oct 16 marks the 58th anniversary of the duo’s courageous move- and it was well thought out too. In addition to their fists, Smith and Carlos also used their clothing to make a statement– both wearing no socks or shoes to represent “black poverty in a racist America,” according to theGrio. Carlos sported red beads around his left wrist as he raised his fist tall and proud. The beads were used to symbolize slaves who were lynched and died during the Middle Passage. Together the pair sent messages of unity and power.
“I looked at my feet in my high socks and thought about all the Black poverty I’d seen from Harlem to East Texas. I fingered my beads and thought about the pictures I’d seen of the ‘strange fruit’ swinging from the poplar trees of the South,” Carlos later shared in his book The John Carlos Story about the experience.
For Smith, the fist served as a symbol for marginalized people who have experienced plight globally. “It was a cry for freedom…We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard” he told Smithsonian Magazine in 2008.
Some viewers and audience members were appalled by the athlete’s political stunt, but it’s important to remember what was happening during that year around the world. Months before the Olympics, the iconic Dr. Martin Luther King had been shot and killed during the height of the Civil Rights movement. The United States was at war with Vietnam and protesters had recently clashed with police at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Smith and Carlos were later suspended by the Olympic Committee for their “willful disregard of Olympic principles,” a statement from the committee read, but the players’ bold statement could be felt by African Americans and marginalized people all across the world.
“If I win I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad then they would say ‘a Negro’. We are black and we are proud of being black,” Smith said at a press conference after the event. “Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
Since Carlos and Smith, a few other Black athletes have made history at the Olympics in a number of historic ways. In honor of the duo, let’s take a look at 10 times where the 2020 Olympics was Black, bold, and bigger than ever.
1. Raven SaundersSource:Getty
Following her second-place win at the women’s shot put tournament during the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, the South Carolina native raised her hands in an “X” formation in honor of oppressed people while receiving her silver award at the podium.
As a gay Black woman, Saunders said she knew far too well what it was like to be oppressed by society.
“Shout out to all my Black people, shout out to all my LBGTQ community, shout out to everybody dealing with mental health,” the silver medalist shared with reporters after her big win. “Because at the end of the day, we understand that it’s bigger than us, and it’s bigger than the powers that be,” she added.
2. Elaine Thompson-HerahSource:Getty
The track and field star made history at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after she broke the late Florence “Flo Jo” Griffith’s record. Elaine crossed the finish line in 10.61 seconds. Joyner’s record of 10.62 had been long-standing since the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
“I think I could have gone faster if I wasn’t pointing and celebrating, really,” Thompson-Herah said after the game. “But to show you that there’s more in store. Hopefully one day I can unleash that time.”
3. Naomi OsakaSource:Getty
Tennis champion Naomi Osaka kicked off the Tokyo Olympics by lighting the flame of the Olympic Cauldron during the opening ceremony.
After carrying the Olympic torch, she gushed about the experience on Instagram.
“Undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honor I will ever have in my life,” she wrote. “I have no words to describe the feelings I have right now but I do know I am currently filled with gratefulness and thankfulness.”
4. Simone BilesSource:Getty
Despite Simone Biles’ temporary withdrawal from the Tokyo Olympics this year, the record-breaking gymnast showed the world what it was like to put mental health and well-being first during the competition.
Biles who has previously won Olympic gold medals in vault, floor, Individual, and Team all-around competitions at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, withdrew from the 2020 competition briefly to tend to her mental health after she said she was suffering from a bout of the “twisties”- a term used where a gymnast loses their sense of awareness in the air. The star later returned for the individual apparatus finals where she took home bronze and a silver medal for the overall competition.
5. Simone ManuelSource:Getty
Manuel was the first African American woman to win a gold medal in the 100m freestyle during the 2020 Beijing Olympics.
6. Allyson FelixSource:Getty
Allyson Felix secured her tenth Olympic medal win during the competition after she struck bronze following the women’s 400-meter relay. Felix blazed through the track in just 49.46 seconds.
After her historic win, Felix gushed about the big news to reporters.
“Just joy,” the 35-year-old mother of one said according to Yahoo! Sports. “This one is very different, and it’s very special. And it just took a lot to get here.”
“I guess I don’t really rank [medals] but this one is just so different,” she continued. “It’s my first bronze medal and it’s just, oh man, it’s hard to describe because I feel like all the other ones I was really just so focused on the performance, and this one it just is so much bigger than that.”
7. Kevin Durant & Team USA BasketballSource:Getty
8. Athing MuSource:Getty
Athing Mu won big at the Olympics this year after she took home gold in both the Women’s 4x400m relay and in the Women’s 800m competition.
9. Sydney McLaughlinSource:Getty
McLaughlin broke her own world record during the competition.McLaughlin posted a time of 51.46, “shaving 0.44 seconds off her own world record,” according to The New York Times. The hurdle champ was also on the 4x400m team that won gold.
10. Tamyrah Mensah-StockSource:Getty
Mensah-Stock made history in Women’s Wrestling after she became the first Black woman to win gold when she defeated Nigeria’s Blessing Oborududu 4-1 in the women’s 68-kilogram freestyle wrestling final. She also became the second American woman to win a gold medal in the event.