(CNN)They stood united on the Olympic podium, heads bowed, black-gloved fists raised in the Black Power salute while the “The Star Spangled Banner” rang out to honor athletic achievement.
The reality, however, was quite different, and this week’s 50th anniversary falls at a time when athletes, such as Colin Kaepernick and Serena Williams, are once again in the spotlight for their activism.
“We’re kind of in a weird spot,” said psychologist, author, and former NBA player John Amaechi of the parallels, 50 years later, in an interview with CNN Sport.
It’s true that memories fade quickly, and many people forget how the entire Olympic organization condemned Smith and Carlos’ act on the podium for the 200 meters.
Far from celebrated, the runners and their families were kicked out of the Olympics. They were suspended by their sport’s national governing body and received hate mail, death threats, and continued criticism for their actions.
The infamous black power salute
‘Status quo is wonderfully convenient’
Fast forward to today’s reactions to the bended-knee protest started in September 2016 by NFL players Kaepernick and Eric Reid.
Their original intent was to spotlight social injustice. Instead, some team owners, fans, and eventually US President Donald Trump denounced the gesture, twisting the protest’s original intent into one over patriotism and the national anthem, despite the many NFL colleagues who kneeled in solidarity.
Kaepernick remains unsigned, despite his on-field performances, and last year filed a grievance with the NFL alleging that owners colluded to keep him unemployed.
“The very same experience that Colin Kaepernick is having now, it’s the same experience that John Carlos and Tommie Smith experienced back then,” Amaechi said.
“It’s amazing. All this time has passed, and there’s nothing different about the response, because the status quo is wonderfully convenient.”
At the Mexico Games, the stakes were high. It was the first time that several athletes came together to highlight human and civil rights issues. Moreover, it was the first time that a Summer Olympiad was a major broadcast event for US television.
“You have protestors who are actively cultivating spectacle,” historian Amy Bass said of 1968, pointing to how televised broadcasts of the January Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War and the August Democratic National Convention left indelible marks on public opinion.
Such images are potent and “the athletes absolutely recognized that,” says Bass.
The era of big-money endorsements that NBA superstar Michael Jordan helped usher in was a game changer, according to Bass.
“That’s a big question that I ask of 1968 and I think that we still ask: ‘What are you risking when you [protest]?'”
For Smith and Carlos, their entire livelihoods were on the line.
“They had the most to lose and they made the most audacious movement,” adds Bass.
The monetary stakes are different, but on the flip side the exposure is much bigger in today’s Internet-driven, social media-fueled world.
This empowers certain top athletes to have their messages heard more consantly and in much more powerful ways than before. And some are actually protected by their high-level visibility and public following.
“Is LeBron James risking the same thing as an NCAA athlete who might create some sort of protest?” questions Bass.
Excluding women activists
It wasn’t just Carlos and Smith who protested during the 1968 Mexico Games.
Peter Norman, who clinched silver in the same 200-meter race, wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge as he was awarded his medal, calling attention to Australia’s treatment of its indigenous people.
But too often erased from collective memory is Wyomia Tyus, the first athlete — male or female — to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the women’s 100m race.
Throughout the 1968 Games, Tyus wore black shorts to symbolize her solidarity with the movement, and even dedicated her medal to Carlos and Smith. Yet, that Tyus isn’t as readily remembered by the public isn’t surprising.
“Black women’s exclusion largely from the activism of the Olympic Project for Human Rights is incredibly typical,” Bass said, reflecting how women were often marginalized within larger social justice movements, not just this one in particular.
It’s an issue that highlights not just racism and issues of civil rights, but also misogyny and the fight for women’s rights — in society and sports culture.
“When you look at someone like Tyus, the problems aren’t just with her activism,” said Bass.
Battle of the sexes
Tennis great Williams and sister Venus have fought racism all their lives, and Serena sought to highlight sexism in tennis during her recent US Open final controversy.
“The coverage of some of the most remarkable female athletes out there, some of the most remarkable women in sports, it’s nonexistent in comparison to the coverage of mediocre men,” said Amaechi, who suggests society in general still has the view that “the prospectus, the pain, the experience of women isn’t really important.”
And he points to the hubris of men that still dominates the sports sphere. From Billie Jean King’s 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match against 55-year-old former tennis pro Bobby Riggs to skier Lindsey Vonn’s recent requests to race against men, the struggle for women to be recognized as sporting equals continues.
“The idea that any old bloke can compete and beat an elite female athlete, that’s still very prevalent,” he says.
There are, of course, numerous exceptions. Several high profile NBA players like James, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Durant are vocal advocates of the WNBA.
And, back in the day, Amaechi credits Susan Robinson, an All-American at Penn State, for teaching him the game and enabling him to reach the NBA.
“I wouldn’t have gotten there without her,” he reflected. “I learned so much about technique from her game.”
Yet, he pointed out the vast difference in public recognition of male and female basketballers, how people thought he was an amazingly skilled ballplayer without acknowledging the technical finesse of Robinson herself.
While there’s been progress since the Olympic protests of 1968, real change in terms of public reaction to athlete-activists of color hasn’t materialized. Fifty years on, they face many of the same hurdles.
“The political amnesia, the historical amnesia still catches me off guard,” says Bass. “That’s the part that still raises my eyebrow: that people are shocked that an athlete has thoughts and positions.”
Something that hasn’t changed is that athletes of all stripes remain role models. And for Amaechi, this is key to effecting real change.
“They have only one choice: to be a good [role model] or a bad one,” he said. “There is no neutral. If you abdicate your power and responsibility to influence in a positive way, then you’re a negative role model.”
In this vein, Carlos, Smith, Tyus, and Norman remain role models 50 years later, even if their acts of protest haven’t entirely changed the way the public reacts to athlete activism.
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