Raising their black-gloved fists in the night air of Mexico City in 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were almost universally condemned. National broadcaster Brent Musberger, then a young sportswriter, referred to the men as “black-skinned stormtroopers.” Bringing home gold and bronze, the Olympic medalists received little more than spite from the country they proudly represented. But the iconic moment transcended sports and politics, and time has corrected perspectives.
The two courageous men are now lauded for their symbolic gesture. The moment in time is preserved, as statues of their silent protest adorn the San Jose State University campus—they were former students at the school. They are remembered more for their humanity than their athletic achievements.
A symbol of hope and defiance for the voiceless and oppressed, many fail to grasp the scope and rapidity of change at that time. But the world watched and the world changed.
Russia, now the host country of the upcoming Winter Olympics, presents a similar opportunity for athletes across the world to have their voice heard.
The country is on the wrong side of history, as it has effectively outlawed the LGBT community and those who support equal rights. Athletes, straight and gay, will converge on the country in the next couple months, and any moment of protest will resound around the world. And because of Smith and Carlos, such a statement will not have the same condemnation associated with it. In fact, such a moment is currently being anticipated and lauded in advance of any real action.
The US is sending openly gay individuals in its delegation, including the legendary Billy Jean King. It is a not so subtle statement to the Russian government and a nod to President Obama’s newly found approval of gay rights. Worth noting, it was not long ago that members of the LGBT community in this country were institutionally denied their civil rights in this country. Had the Olympics been held in 2012 in San Francisco, a similar act of protest could have occurred.
We recognize that the work goes on, and true equality has not yet come to pass in 34 states in this union. But the tide of history has clearly turned and America is moving in the right direction.
Many nations and cultures continue to discriminate against the LGBT community, women and minorities of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The US is seen as a beacon of hope for those who currently live in the shadows of their own society. They long for the day when they will be treated equally and with respect, when the only judgment passed s based on their character rather than skin color, gender, or who they love.
This is the main reason people admire America. There is a belief that in this country, regardless of who you are, there is opportunity to succeed. It is an imperfect belief, to say the least, but it gives hope to those who are oppressed around the world, and it is the reason this country continues to be admired—even as our flaws are exposed for all to see.
The legacy of Tommie Smith and John Carlos is a story of struggle and overcoming through belief. While some would suggest boycotting the Olympics, that is not the answer. The solution is to compete and stand for something greater than one’s self.
Rich Robinson is a political consultant in Silicon Valley.