Sport on TV: Timely salute for rights and wrongs of protest

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Chinese authorities must be quaking in their jackboots. The Olympics do tend to get a little political, and in Beijing there are no plans to mark the 40th anniversary of the "black power" civil rights protest by Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico City Games. The hosts won't be looking to commemorate any remarkable campaigns to champion the cause of the oppressed.

'Black Power Salute' (BBC4, Wednesday) began with the BBC's Frank Bough telling us on 'Good Morning Mexico' on 16 October 1968 about a protest by the two "American Negro runners", who raised their clenched, black-gloved fists on the medal podium. The N-word was surely an unnecessary addition even in those days, given what the protest was about, let alone the famous pictures themselves.

The programme told how the Olympic Project for Human Rights tried to orchestrate a boycott of the '68 Games, as well as calling for Muhammad Ali's world title to be reinstated (it had been taken away when he refused the Vietnam draft) and an Olympic ban for South Africa and Rhodesia.

The San Jose University Speed City team, of which Smith and Carlos were members, also joined forces with their classroom guru Professor Harry Edwards to call for Avery Brundage to be removed as head of the International Olympic Committee. He had been instrumental in Berlin staging the 1936 Games, in return for which Hitler had awarded his construction company the contract to build the German embassy in the US.

The boycott failed and Brundage stayed on. Then he sent Jesse Owens, the icon of black athletes, to stop the US team from continuing their protests, having been responsible for ending Owens' career after the Berlin Games.

Owens ended up in horseracing. But unlike many ex-pros down at the track, he was actually racing against the horses. Old Avery could not be faulted for his ability to compromise the integrity of all concerned.

He sent Smith and Carlos home after the salute. The track ran downhill from there, and we next saw Smith marooned in some grim sports stadium in Wakefield, where this giant of a man with ferocious facial hair held keep-fit sessions for very skinny, very pale and perhaps very frightened children.

What the programme didn't tell us is that Smith and Carlos are apparently no longer on speaking terms. Their versions of the events have become so radically different. Meanwhile, Brundage was faced with the Munich bombing four years later, when he famously insisted: "The Games must go on."

He stood down after the '72 Olympics having been in charge of the IOC for 20 years. Three years later he was dead. The Chinese could have done with someone like him around.