John Carlos took a stand for human rights during the Mexico City Olympics that resonates to this day.
Almost 45 years ago, Carlos climbed on the medals podium along with Tommie Smith. Each thrust a black-gloved fist toward the sky. Peter Norman stood in front of them, stoically wearing a badge that showed his support for the African-American cause.
Let’s hope the athletes of the world are prepared to make a similar statement at the Sochi Games.
They’re the best hope of getting through to the Russians that their anti-gay law is unacceptable.
“We were willing to sacrifice everything,” Carlos said. “It was not just a gesture for John Carlos and Tommie Smith and Peter Norman. It was for all of society.”
Carlos, as much as anyone, knows that sports can be a potent tool to help address society’s ills.
“I’ll bet there are athletes out there that have as much power or recognition as the president of the United States,” he told The Associated Press. “Now, when I say power, I don’t mean they have the political power to dictate things one way or the other. I’m talking about a power amongst the people. So many people will stop and listen to what these individuals have to say. They will stop and recognize what they are wearing or which direction they are going.”
What would be more powerful than every athlete carrying a small rainbow flag — a symbol of the gay pride movement — when they walk into stadium in Sochi during the opening ceremony?
What would be more powerful than every athlete who wins a medal climbing on that podium with a replica of the OPHR (Olympic Project for Human Rights) badge that Smith, Normal and Carlos wore while receiving their medals at the ’68 Summer Games?
Wonder how that would go over with Vladimir Putin?
Let’s hope we get to find out.
Certainly, there’s no chance of the International Olympic Committee taking any meaningful steps after Russia’s recent passage of a law that bans so-called gay “propaganda.”
Some of that is understandable, given we’re only months away from the start of the Winter Games — too short a timeframe to pull the mammoth event from Sochi and award it to another city, at least without delaying the games until 2015. But also, as we saw in Beijing, the IOC is more concerned about its bottom line than advancing the cause of human rights.
The Russians insist this is a non-issue being pushed by the West to embarrass the Olympic hosts as they prepare for their moment on the world stage, that the law is merely designed to protect children and there is no desire to criminalize homosexuality. But every time they addressed the complaints during the world athletics championships, which wrapped up Sunday in Moscow, they stepped in the you-know-what.
When Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro painted her fingernails in the colors of the rainbow to support gays and lesbians, Russian pole vault star Yelena Isinbayeva called it a sign of disrespect for her homeland.
“If we allow to promote and do all this stuff on the street, we are very afraid about our nation because we consider ourselves like normal, standard people. We just live with boys with woman, woman with boys,” Isinbayeva said in English. Later, she would claim it was all just a misunderstanding because she wasn’t speaking in her native language.
We’re not buying it, not after we got more of the same nonsense from a top Russian official on the final day of the world championships. Sports minister Vitaly Mutko said the law would not infringe on the private lives of athletes and spectators at the Sochi Olympics, but he seemed to leave open the possibility of prosecuting anyone making statements that were judged to be propaganda.
More troubling, he appeared to indicate that homosexual relations were essentially the same scourge on society as substance abuse.
“We want to protect our children whose psyches have not formed from the propaganda of drug use, drunkenness and nontraditional sexual relations,” Mutko said.
Maybe his true feelings somehow got lost in translation again. If not, that sort of talk is downright frightening.
“I’m stunned with the passing of these laws,” said Greg Louganis, probably the greatest diver ever and openly gay. “How can anybody call themselves sane and or even educated? That’s my biggest concern. There are gay kids born every day in Russia. Where are the voices to protect those children?”
That’s where the athletes of the world come in.
Green Tregaro’s manicure was a small step in the right direction. American figure skater Johnny Weir vowed to do more if he qualifies for the Olympics — even at the risk of getting arrested. Every athlete who winds up in Sochi should look deep into his or her heart and see if they can summon the courage to take a stand.
Rest assured, there’s strength in numbers. Putin isn’t likely to fill Russian jails with world-class athletes from around the world.
At the very least, every athlete should reflect on the example set by Smith, Carlos and Norman at the height of another civil rights movement — and the price they were willing to pay. Smith and Carlos were sent home from the Mexico City Games. Norman was ostracized in his native Australia and never got another chance to compete in the Olympics.
“I was extraordinarily confident in my cause,” Carlos said. “I think courage is something that everyone has. It’s just difficult for some people to find that courage within themselves. It’s there. You’ve just to bring it out.”
Carlos, Smith and Norman found that courage and wound up on the right side of history.
They’ll be joined by any athlete who finds it in Sochi.
Follow Paul Newberry at Twitter.com/pnewberry1963