The International Olympic Committee's ban on protests and demonstrations at the Olympic Games will continue in Tokyo this year. Tommie Smith is still waiting for a change.
Smith, best known for his Black Power salute at the top of the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics, discussed the IOC's ongoing ban during an episode of HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel." When asked about the lack of change between 1968 and 2021, Smith used one word to describe the situation:
“It is archaic. Very archaic. I think this is why the younger generation is rising up.”
The IOC executive board unanimously approved the continuation of the ban last month, though the actual punishment that protests would face remains hazy. In the case of Smith, he and fellow protester John Carlos were suspended from Team USA, expelled from the Olympic Village and faced a litany of death threats at home. Smith recently said he still receives death threats.
Despite those threats, Smith described his domestic reception as icy, and said that the repercussions caught him by surprise:
“It was a quiet backlash. Coming home and finding silence, coming home and finding no job, coming home and finding the wife and the son were sad because there was nothing there for them because of what their father and husband did to satisfy a fortitude of hope for Black folks. I was there alone trying to do something that had not been done before in the history of athletics. This was an athletic movement that was guided by the racist tendencies of a nation that did not represent me.”
The IOC's ban on protests doesn't guarantee there won't be protests in Tokyo, of course. Team USA hammer thrower Gwen Berry, who protested systemic racism by raising her fist on a Pan American Games podium in 2019, said the ban would not deter her if she made the Games. Athlete groups and unions have also promised legal support for any protesting athletes.
Smith told any athletes who protest to expect the worst:
Gumbel: “So, as someone who’s been through this, someone who is an icon where these matters are concerned, what would you say to those American Olympians who are considering raising a fist or taking a knee to call attention to racism and social injustice?”
Smith: “I’m not telling an athlete to do anything, because I can’t tell what’s in an athlete’s heart. The athlete’s got to do this for himself.”
Gumbel: “Would you tell athletes who are thinking about protesting that if they proceed, to expect the worst?”
Smith: “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.”
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