Three Stories of Protest at the 1968 Olympic Games

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The Tokyo games will begin this Friday, July 23, and there has been recent news around Rule 50 of the Olympic games which bans “demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda in Olympic venues.” The Olympics, though, have a long history of protests, and I think it’s helpful to view current events in the context of this history. 

Here are three stories of protest at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. If you watch or follow the upcoming Tokyo Olympics and the associated protest that might occur, you can think of them within this larger context of historical protest at these world games. 

Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ protest is probably the most famous of these games. The two men won the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meter race. When receiving their medals, Smith and Carlos wore black socks without shoes to symbolize African-American poverty and a black glove to symbolize African-American strength and unity, and they each raised a fist with lowered heads during the national anthem. 

Smith and Carlos were then suspended from the US team and forced to leave the Olympic Village, but they were not forced to return their medals. 

Wyomia Tyus is mostly known as a former world-record holder in the 100 meter race, and the first person to win gold in this event twice. During her 1968 gold-medal performance, she also protested against racism and human rights abuses through her clothing. 

She did so by wearing dark blue running shorts, in contrast to the white ones the other Americans in this event wore. She also criticized the actions taken against Smith and Carlos for their own protest. Her shorts are now in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and she recently published a memoir detailing these games. 

In gymnastics, Věra Čáslavská also protested at these historic games. When receiving her four gold and two silver medals, she turned her head from the Soviet flag. Two months earlier, the Soviet Union had invaded Čáslavská’s home of Czechoslovakia. She then fled to the forest and trained by swinging from trees and doing floor routines in a meadow. 

After the games, Čáslavská was barred from the sport in Czechoslovakia, so she decided to coach in Mexico.