The 1968 Olympics, the salute and the rowing crew
As an international mega-sports event the Olympic and Paralympic Games commands the spotlight. This was certainly the case with one of the most iconic images to come out of the Games.
It was Mexico 1968 and two black Americans stood on the winners dais their hands raised in the air in what has become known as the salute. The two athletes were 200m sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Heads bowed, they must have known that what they were doing would be the end of their lives as they knew it.
This story is from 52 years ago but it resonates still today especially as both the International Paralympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee review the right to protest.
At that time in the United States, the fastest university rowing crew got selected to compete at the Olympics for the United States. Paul Hoffman was studying law at Harvard University and was part of the crew that was aiming for Olympic selection. Hoffman remembers 1968 as being one of those years that the United States changed. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. The anti-war movement was growing.
“One of the tough things about crew was that we were really serious about our rowing, but we could not ignore what was going on,” says Hoffman. “Civil Rights and the anti-war movement were hard to ignore. On the crew individually we had a range of opinions. We were from different backgrounds and families and at that age much of our politics came from our families.
“There was talk of an Olympic boycott by black athletes. We (the crew) talked about it but we never had unity on what to do. We did discuss the idea that if we won Olympic trials some of us should visit with Harry Edwards.” Edwards was a sociology professor at San Jose State College who had helped established the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). The aim of the OPHR was to protest against racial segregation in the United States and racism in sports.
“After the Olympic trials (which the Harvard crew won) I drove with Cleve Livingston to see Harry Edwards. We told him we’d won the Olympic trials and we’d been reading about the Olympic Project and we wanted to hear what it was all about. The nucleus of our crew wanted to foster a better understanding of what black athletes were going through.
“He (Edwards) told us we needed to get the message out. At that time there was very real discrimination for black athletes. Harry said he was coming east and would talk to everyone. He came to the (Harvard) boathouse and six of us agreed that we’d issue a statement of support of the ideas of the Olympic Project.”
Hoffman says they then needed to let their coach, Harry Parker know. They drove to Parker’s house and said, “We want to tell you what we’re doing. Six of us are going to sign this statement and invite Harry Edwards to the boathouse to hold a press conference.”
Parker replied, “Guys, I hope you know me well enough by now to know I don’t agree with discrimination. My only concern I’d have is the effect on the crew.”
Every time an athlete got selected for the US Olympic team, Hoffman and his crew would write an individual handwritten letter to them. The goal of the letter was to help white athletes get information about the reasons for black athlete demonstration and to get the discussion going between whites and blacks.
No response came back from the letters with many of the athletes forwarding their letter directly to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC).
When Hoffman and the team flew to Mexico to compete at the Olympics, Hoffman wore his ‘Olympic Project for Human Rights’ badge. “I got told, ‘no funny buttons’,” says Hoffman. “I looked over at the fastest woman on the planet, Wyomia Tyus who was also wearing the badge, I said, ‘you go ask her to do that too’. He didn’t.”
On the day of the 200m men’s final that Carlos and Smith were running in, Hoffman went to watch. “We (Hoffman and sports editor Pete Axthelm who Hoffman had befriended) sat with Tommie and John’s wives. The four of us watched the race. I had no idea any protest was going to happen.”
Smith won the race setting a new world record the process. Australian Peter Norman finished second setting an Australian 200m record that still stands today. Carlos was third.
“They all came over to go underneath (the stadium) to get ready for the medal ceremony. It was pretty clear by now that something was up. At that point Peter Norman, who I didn’t know, comes up to me and says, ‘hey mate, have you got another of those buttons?’ I think to myself ‘Jesus’. I said, ‘no I’ve just got this one, are you going to wear it?’ He said ‘yes’.” Hoffman gave Norman the badge.
When Carlos and Smith raised their gloved fists into the air as the American national anthem played for the medals ceremony, the crowd went silent. Then the boos and abuse began. Carlos and Smith were expelled from the US team and sent home. Their athletic careers were ruined. They received death threats for years and were seen as traitors to their country.
For Norman there was also fallout. On his return to Australia Norman and his family were outcasted. It was hard for Norman to find work and he got no recognition as a runner. Leading up to the 1972 Olympic Games Norman qualified for the 200m 13 times and for the 100m five times. He was not selected. Leading up to the Sydney 2000 Olympics Norman was given the option that if he condemned Carlos and Smith then he would be pardoned and would be given a job with the Sydney Olympics. Norman refused to condemn Carlos and Smith. As one of Australia’s best ever athletes Norman was not allowed to march in the Sydney Olympics under the Australian flag. (He was, however, invited to march with the US team).
Back in Mexico City, this was not the end for Hoffman. Three days later the men’s eight final was due to be raced. Hoffman’s US crew had made it into the final.
“Someone in a blue blazer came up to one of my team mates and said, ‘Don’t worry, we can replace Paul Hoffman.’ I knew that if I was suspended, if I wasn’t in the boat, then we weren’t going to row.”
Hoffman’s eight went to go out for a practice the night before their final. Parker had heard that the Olympic officials were holding a hearing on Hoffman at the Olympic Committee hotel. “Parker says to me, ‘why don’t you go to the hearing?’” remembers Hoffman.
By that stage Hoffman says he would have done anything to make sure that he and his team could race the next day.
“They bring me in, they asked me questions. I don’t remember the details, but I remember at one point them saying, ‘don’t you see it’s contrary to the goals of the Olympics?’ I said, ‘no sir, the only thing I’ve done is write letters. I backed down.”
The officials then grilled Parker.
“They then come down to congratulate me, ‘you can row tomorrow,’ they said.”
Hoffman did not get back to the Olympic village and his team until after 10:30pm. The team was waiting up to see if they were going to be able to row.
“I thought that was the end of it,” says Hoffman.
A month after the Olympics had finished Parker received a letter from President of the USOC, Douglas Roby. “After meeting with you in Mexico City,” Roby wrote to Parker, “… it is my feeling that you are probably the one most responsible for taking the Harvard crew, and possibly their minds, away from the purpose for which we took this group to Mexico City to represent the United States.”
Roby goes on, “At one time I, personally, was in favour of disqualifying you and your crew for acts grossly unbecoming to members of our Olympic Team. I am now glad that I did not encourage such a harsh action for I feel that the miserable performance of you and your crew at Mexico City will stand as a permanent record against you and the athletes which you led.
“As a boy I had great admiration and respect for Harvard … Certainly serious intellectual degeneration has taken place in this once great University if you and several members of your crew are examples of the type of men that are within its walls.”
At the Munich 1972 Olympic Games, the United States men’s eight, with three members from the 1968 crew in the boat - Cleve Livingston, Michael Livingston and Paul Hoffman - won the silver medal. Harry Parker was the selector of the crew.