Kicked Out of Olympics in 1968 for Racial Protest, Sprinters Smith and Carlos Now Going to Hall of Fame

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John Carlos (L) and Tommie Smith (R) stand in front of a statue on the San Jose State University campus memorializing their iconic act of protest at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. (Courtesy of Josie Lepe/San Jose State University )

More than a half-century after the U.S. Olympic Committee expelled two Bay Area track stars from the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City for their bold act of political protest, the organization is awarding the athletes with its highest honor.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, San Jose State University alumni, are among the latest members of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee's Hall of Fame induction class, and will be formally recognized at a ceremony on Nov. 1 in Colorado Springs, the organization announced Monday.

This is the organization's first induction class since 2012, and includes gymnast Nastia Liukin, basketball player Lisa Leslie, speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno, beach volleyball player Misty May-Treanor, swimmer Dara Torres and the entire 1998 U.S. Olympic women’s ice hockey team.

"Tommie Smith and John Carlos are Olympic legends," USOPC spokesman Mark Jones said in an email. "While the Olympic Charter clearly prohibits political protest, and we abide by that prohibition, then and now, we can and should celebrate Tommie and John’s accomplishments on the field of play and their contributions to an important moment in our nation’s history."

This honor, he added, is an "opportunity to recognize the unique power sport and the Games provide us for unity, as well as the need to identify ways for athletes to make their voices heard on issues that are important to them."

The move marks a sea change from the organization's stance in 1968, when it banished Smith, who broke the world record in the 200-meter race, and Carlos, who finished in third place, after the two raised their fists in a Black Power salute and bowed their heads on the medals podium.  They wore black gloves and no shoes to draw attention to African American poverty and oppression, in what quickly became one of the most iconic political acts in Olympic history.

San Jose State University sprinter Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos, right, raised their gloved fists on the awards podium at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico as a protest against racial oppression in America. Peter Norman of Australia, left, who took silver, wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights pin in solidarity.
San Jose State University sprinter Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos, right, raised their gloved fists on the awards podium at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico as a protest against racial oppression in America. Peter Norman of Australia, left, who took silver, wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights pin in solidarity. (AFP/Getty Images)

The USOC initially issued just a warning, but the International Olympic Committee demanded a stronger response, concerned that “racial dissension might spread to other delegations if USOC refused to suspend Smith and Carlos,” according to a message sent at the time from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.

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The USOC — which changed its name this year to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee — ultimately moved to expel the two sprinters from the games, sending them back to San Jose the next day. The committee released a statement expressing its "profound regrets to the International Olympic Committee, to the Mexican Organizing Committee and to the people of Mexico for the discourtesy displayed by two members of its team."

Under the leadership of Avery Brundage, a controversial figure who had previously been accused of racism and anti-Semitism, the IOC called the protest of black suffering in America “outrageous.”

“The action … was an insult to the Mexican hosts and a disgrace to the United States,” Brundage wrote in a letter months later.

At home, Smith and Carlos received death threats, and the FBI labeled them "rabble rousers" and started monitoring them.

The superstars from “Speed City,” as San Jose State was called at the time, were banned from international track and field competitions. This came at a time when Smith, who had already broken multiple speed records, was widely considered one of the fastest men in the world.

Over the years, attitudes toward the men began to change. In 1984, Smith and Carlos became emissaries for the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and were subsequently inducted into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame. And in 2005, the Associated Students of San Jose State University unveiled, in the center of the campus, a 23-foot-tall sculpture of the two athletes with their fists raised.

"We had to do something that would be prestigious, respectable, pungent, shocking," Carlos told attendees during a 2018 commemoration event at SJSU. "We didn't give the finger. We didn't wrap the flag around our head or tie it up like a diaper. We didn't stand there with disrespect. We stood there to say, 'Hey man, I'm America. I'm your son and I'm wounded. I'm not wounded for me, because I'm one of your heroes. I'm in the Olympics. But I'm wounded for the race.' ... That's why we went to Mexico City."


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