The message of 1968

Author Dave Zirin talks about a sports moment that changed the world


By J.H. Tompkins

LIT On October 16, 1968, in Mexico City, American Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos electrified the world by accepting their medals with heads down and gloved fists thrust proudly in the air. Their defiance provided a fitting end for a year that began with Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring and America's military humiliation during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and saw the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and its explosive aftermath, the general strike in France, the riveting presence and influence of the Black Panther Party, mushrooming opposition to the draft, and rioting in Chicago during the Democratic Convention.

Like Mohammed Ali, who in 1967 went to prison rather than fight in Vietnam, Smith and Carlos wrote an important page in American history. Like Ali, they have remained true to the principles they embodied years ago. Now, 43 years down the road, it's hard to find anyone to speak against what they did.

But at the time, precisely because their enemy was weakened by exposure and their supporters inspired, they faced a blistering backlash. They were banished from Olympic Village, and sent back to the United States. Their crime? Smith and Carlos were allegedly guilty of tarnishing the spirit of an Olympic games that were supposed to be above and beyond politics.

Author-columnist-cultural critic Dave Zirin, who with Carlos has just published "The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World," has more than a few things to say about the sanctity of sports and the way political context shapes athletes as well as the games they play. These days, a conversation with Zirin has a special quality: not only has he written a book that sheds new light on an important, long-ago event, the present moment is energized by political turmoil that brings to mind the 1960s.

"I was an absolute sports junkie in the '90s, when I was in college," Zirin told me in a recent interview. "I memorized stats, followed every sport, it was my oxygen. I didn't follow politics, much less politics in sports, until something happened that stopped me cold: In 1996 [Denver Nuggets guard] Mahmoud Abdul Rauf made a decision not to stand during the National Anthem. He was asked whether he understood that the flag was a symbol of freedom and equality throughout the world, and he said it may be to some, but to others it's a symbol of oppression and tyranny. This was before the spread of the Internet, and Rauf's stand was only covered by the mainstream media. They crushed him."

Zirin realized then that there was an aspect of sports history he hadn't concerned himself with, "the place where social justice and sports intersect," as he put it. It has shaped the work he's done since.

Among many other things, Zirin writes a column, "Edge of Sports" for the Sports Illustrated Website, has a weekly radio show called "Edge of Sports Radio" on XM, and contributes regularly to The Nation and SLAM Magazine. Along with "The John Carlos Story," he was written books including "What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States," "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sports," and "A People's History of Sports in the United States."

As Zirin and Carlos point out in the book, the futures of both runners were shaped by what they did in Mexico City. They struggled to find jobs, stability, and peace of mind. Still, Zirin writes "Unlike other 1960s iconography — Woodstock, Abbie Hoffman, Richard Nixon — the moment doesn't feel musty. It still packs a wallop."

It resonates because the injustices they protested are still rife in America, and because the arena in which they took their stand — sports — creates common ground for so many people.