50 years after fists: Who would listen, who would care?
Two men stood together, utilizing the worldwide platform that only the Olympics can provide, to call attention to the struggle they shared with fellow Americans during a divisive, seemingly intractable period in their country’s history.
In 1968, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists on the medals stand.
In 2018, skier Gus Kenworthy and his boyfriend, Matt Wilkas, made their own calculated statement when they kissed at the bottom of a ski slope .
Smith and Carlos had a captive global audience of hundreds of millions to create international headlines thanks to limited choices in a growing TV culture. Today’s athletes — even when armed with a powerful message of inclusion or social injustice, a la Kenworthy or the polarizing Colin Kaepernick — face different obstacles. They are communicating to groups fragmented by cable TV, social media and the various echo chambers that define today’s public discourse.
And so, even though the Olympics have morphed into a mass-media extravaganza beyond what anyone could’ve imagined when Smith and Carlos raised their fists 50 years ago, on Oct. 16, 1968, it’s hard to envision anything replacing that as the most significant protest in the history of the Olympics, and sports in general.
“Back then, Carlos and Smith were ‘The Story’ and you couldn’t really avoid it,” says Washington State professor Scott Jedlicka, who recently gave a lecture to a group of sports historians about the complexities of the Mexico City Games. “Today, not only would it perhaps be forgotten a lot more quickly, but it would also be spun up in so many different ways to drive up meaning and message about the protest’s significance.”
As true back then as it is today, very few people tune in to a sporting event expecting, or particularly interested in, a lesson about civics or social inequality. Many would prefer for athletes to stay inside the lines.
As images of their defiantly raised fists slowly filtered across the globe, Smith and Carlos were widely vilified, and kicked out of the Olympics by their own country’s federation. Both men suffered personally and professionally upon their return to the United States. Neither has expressed regret about what they did.
“Yes, indeed, it was worth it,” Smith said in an interview aired on BBC this month.
Carlos’ words from 50 years ago still resonate in many corners today: “White America would not understand,” he said that night. “They recognize me only when I do something bad, and they call me ‘Negro.’”
If the reaction to the sprinters, over weeks, and months and then years, was a slow-moving tsunami, the reaction to Kenworthy and Wilkas was more like a fast-moving, then quickly extinguished, wildfire.
Though their kiss was picked up by TV cameras, it didn’t start trending until the images were redistributed via social media. It was a purposeful and powerful gambit by Kenworthy, who used his Twitter and Instagram accounts throughout the Pyeongchang Games to help bring LGBT issues to the fore.
Images of the kiss went viral, but the nature of 2018-style social media made the episode a juicy morsel for a news cycle. It was quickly overrun by outrage over Korean dog meat farms and politically charged rants about Ivanka Trump’s visit to Pyeongchang.
Part of this might be a sign of progress — the image of gay athletes kissing doesn’t evoke the same response now as it would have 20, or 50, years ago, Jedlicka says.
But another part “speaks to the fact that you don’t have the media gatekeepers you had in 1968,” said John Koch, who teaches a course called ‘Rhetoric, Sports and Society’ at Vanderbilt.
“It used to be the media had the sole responsibility of what was salient, worthy of seeing,” Koch said. “Twitter users have that same ability now.”
That’s what has helped Kaepernick, in many ways, become this generation’s Smith and Carlos.
When the quarterback first kneeled to protest racial and social injustice during the national anthem, it went completely unnoticed during a preseason NFL game and only gained traction through the powers of social media. From there, his message has been filtered and re-filtered through everything from tweets by President Donald Trump to ads run by his corporate supporter, Nike.
Most poignantly, sports has become a central part of the (hashtag)MeToo movement in the wake of the Larry Nassar sex-abuse scandal, which exposed the physician as the molester of hundreds of young female athletes, including members of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team.
The hashtag in ”(hashtag)MeToo” says all we need to know about the medium through which some of the most heart-wrenching calls to action have come.
It reinforces the words of Marshall McLuhan, the renowned intellectual who famously declared “The medium is the message” — a nod to the idea that the way information is disseminated is every bit as important as the information itself.
In 1968, Smith and Carlos felt the sting of social injustice and knew they could draw attention to it on the Olympic medals stand.
Fifty years later, athletes have more outlets at their disposal to point out similar problems of inequality. But once they use them, the myriad of platforms can help turn one story into a slow-moving Kaepernick tsunami and relegate another to a Kenworthy-Wilkas news minute.
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham contributed to this report.