“I had a moral obligation to step up”

On 16 October 1968, two black American athletes courted controversy at the Olympics

American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists and give the Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City © Getty

It’s one of the most recognisable sporting photographs of the past half-century, the moment at which two US athletes – Tommie Smith and John Carlos – raised their arms in a ‘black power’ salute while on the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

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Each lifted a fist, encased in a black glove, to the sky as the notes of The Star-Spangled Banner filled the air.

The two sprinters – Smith had won 200-metre gold, Carlos the bronze – were prepared to sacrifice their personal achievements in order to raise the issue of racial inequality when the eyes of the world were on them. They had also removed their shoes, a symbolic gesture highlighting the ongoing poverty experienced by many black Americans.

Booed by the stadium crowd as they left the podium, the pair soon found themselves incurring the wrath of the International Olympic Committee who deemed their protest to be “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit,” and expelled them from the Games.

The athletes did, however, have solidarity on the podium itself. The silver medallist, Australian Peter Norman, wore a human rights badge during the medal ceremony in support of Smith and Carlos. When Norman died in 2006, the two Americans were pall-bearers at his funeral.

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“I had a moral obligation to step up,” an unrepentant Carlos told The Guardian more than 40 years later, emphasising he was fulfilling a duty that October day in Mexico City. “Morality was a far greater force than the rules and regulations they had.”