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Olympic anti-racism icon Tommie Smith sees no successors

Published : Thursday, 13 June, 2024 at 12:00 AM  Count : 70

PARIS, JUNE 12: Famed Olympics protestor Tommie Smith believes modern athletes are less political than before despite the need to continue fighting racism, including in the United States where it "could not get any worse".  

Smith, a gold medal-winning American sprinter in Mexico City in 1968, produced one of the most iconic images of the modern Olympics when he raised his fist on the medals podium to protest against racial discrimination.

The gesture at the high point of his career, aged just 24, earned him a life-time ban from athletics for breaking rules prohibiting political statements set by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

"I think because the athletes in the past suffered consequences in trying to make the system better, athletes are now geared more on themselves in terms of making better times for themselves, so they can gain further in the future," Smith told AFP in Paris, which will host the next Games from July 26.

The 80-year-old, who was visiting a major new Olympics exhibition on Tuesday, stopped short of encouraging others to follow his lead.

"I encourage them to follow their own mind and do what they think is a necessity," said the former 200m world record holder, who spent 35 years as a high-school teacher after abandoning athletics.

Anti-discrimination protests have spread in sport in recent years, with American football player Colin Kaepernick starting a movement to "take the knee" to protest against racism and other sports embracing gay rights.  

But for the Olympics, the IOC still prohibits any political statements from athletes on the field of play under article 50 of its charter which seeks to keep the Games neutral and detached from contentious issues.

Paris 2024 begins in under 50 days at a time of major international tensions over Israels war in Gaza, Russias invasion of Ukraine, and Chinas increasingly aggressive stance towards Taiwan.

Host country France will vote in snap parliamentary elections just three weeks before the sport starts, with far-right anti-immigration political parties hoping to gain power for the first time since World War II.

Smith, who stresses that he campaigns for universal human rights, not black rights, said he was "worried about the world, not only in track and field, but the political view of the world".

"There are a lot of things thats going on now, that didn go on back then, because the world is changing... And that could be a danger for a lot of human beings," he added.

Ahead of the US election in November, when Donald Trump is hoping to return to the White House, Smith said racism in his home country could "not get any worse".

"I pray that it will get different than what it is now," he told AFP. "You know I don think it could get any worse, I really don ."

While visiting the exhibition "Olympism, a history of the world" as a guest of French bank Casden, Smith reproduced his famous pose in front of a giant photo of himself, fellow American sprinter Jean Carlos, and Australian Peter Norman.

On the podium, Norman, a silver medal winner who was white, wore a badge in support of the "Olympic Project for Human Rights", an organisation set up by Smith and Carlos to oppose racism in sport.

Norman was never officially sanctioned, but returned home in disgrace and was overlooked by Australian selectors afterwards.
The "forgotten man" of the Mexico protest was hailed by Smith as "one of the greatest persons I ever met".

"Peter Norman did not back us. He was a part of the belief in human rights," he said. "His wasn a move for black athletes, but it was a human move."

Smith said he was excited to see the sprinters perform in Paris, but if he could roll back the years and run in the French capital, would he repeat his gesture on the podium?

"Id be the same guy," he laughed. "I hate no one... I respect you as I respect my own brother."    —AFP







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