Barry Davies' Olympic Moments: Black Power, Mexico 1968

In a 10-part series, BBC broadcaster Barry Davies recalls the most memorable Olympic moments of his 44 years on air from the Games.

There are two events I must include in any Olympic top 10 that had nothing to do with sport and everything to do with life.

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I don't think you can close athletics off from your social life. There's no way you can put a line between them two.

John Carlos, speaking to the BBC on the night of his protest in 1968

We will come to the second, but the first of those is the Black Power salute that took place in Mexico City in 1968.

At the end of the men's 200m final, Tommie Smith - who had won it - and fellow black athlete John Carlos, who was third, each took to the podium wearing one black glove to indicate what was called 'Black Power'.

I thought it had a deal of humanity in the way it was done. It wasn't in any way extrovert or flamboyant, it was a quiet holding aloft of the arm with the black glove.

Smith, on top of the podium, wore his glove on the right hand while Carlos wore his on the left. It is said that Peter Norman, the white Australian who finished in second place, suggested they do it that way because Carlos, who was supposed to come with a pair of gloves, had forgotten his so they only had Smith's.

At the time, an awful lot of people looked upon their protest as being something quite disgusting - nobody more so than the International Olympic Committee president of the time, Avery Brundage, who said that politics had been brought into the Olympics and there was no place for it.

John Carlos remembers

Carlos spoke to the BBC earlier in 2012 about his decision to raise one gloved hand.

"The black glove was primarily brought out to symbolise black people first, and then America. But there was more than that. I had a black shirt over my USA jersey to show my sadness and disappointment in America. We wore no shoes to illustrate poverty and beads to represent lynchings that had taken place throughout the South.

"Before the anthem was even said and done, the boos started coming, people throwing things and spitting. I knew it was going to be rough waters from the moment we left the victory stand, going through life.

"My wife took her life as a result of Mexico City [in 1977], we had no money - I remember breaking up furniture to put it in the fire for heat - and there was friction in my household, friends walking away from you, you understand?

"But the bottom line is I would do it a thousand times over, my wife would have to die a thousand times, because it ain't about me, my wife, or my kids, it's about humanity and our society.

"It's not easy for anybody to think: 'Hey man, you could die any day', but what you're doing is greater than the life that you had. Somebody could pick up a book one day down the line, a hundred years from now, and say 'I want to be just like this dude here. Because it wasn't about his life, it was about what he did with his life.'"

I think that view was very questionable. I think it was about humanity, a couple of black guys saying: when we get home, we won't necessarily be greeted as heroes in the same way that Peter Norman would have been if he had won and then gone back to Australia.

Norman suffered for it, too - he was seen to support the protest and was ostracised. Many years later, Norman died early having never really, it seems, recovered from that. Two of his pallbearers were Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

They were ostracised too, back in the United States. Brundage tried to force them away, asking the United States Olympic Committee to send them home. Only later on did the attitude towards the two of them change, and their contribution towards the civil rights movement was recognised with a statue  erected at Carlos's old university.

That statue shows the two of them on the podium, but there is a gap where Norman would have been. A lot of people think Norman should have been included having, at the time, sported a badge for the IOC's Olympic Project for Human Rights  - which had unsuccessfully tried to establish a boycott of the Games in protest against racial segregation.

Norman suffered too, and his decision to do what he did was spontaneous. The others had planned it.

Mexico 1968 was only the second Olympic Games to be covered by the electronic media, after Tokyo 1964. For me, the Black Power salute was the moment at which the Olympic Games became a theatre open to anybody who wanted to make a point, whether it was to win a gold medal in a world-record time or draw attention to what was considered to be a problem at home.

If you had taken a straw poll at the time, Brundage's view would have come out on top. But you have to bear in mind that although it wasn't in any way directly connected, those Games - before they opened - had seen students gunned down in the street by the powers-that-be in Mexico. There was a feeling of protest within Mexican life and the atmosphere of the Games.

What happened next

Smith and Carlos were expelled from the athletes' village and sent home after their protest, and both received death threats for many years.

At the time, the IOC called the protest "a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit".

Only several decades later were the pair honoured for their part in the United States' civil rights movement.

I have a little personal postscript to this. On the night of that event, I was downtown in a hotel in Mexico City and I had John Carlos standing in front of me. I was waiting for my ITV camera crew and he waited quite a while for me, something like 10 minutes, but - when the camera arrived - nothing worked.

In the meantime, the BBC got hold of Carlos, gave him a room in the hotel and then produced their 'exclusive' some 12 hours later. That was a blow.

I vividly recall Brundage walking into the same hotel, looking backwards and waving to his secretary in the car that had dropped him, and not realising that in front of him was a small fountain and pond. He fell in, tried to get out, fell in again and rushed back to the car, wringing wet. What a picture that would have made.