|Thursday, May 23, 2013|
* NO COUNTRY PAGES FOUND FOR THIS ISSUE
E K'ABOThe Black Olympics
06/09/12, Idorenyin Uyoe
Britain's Princess Royal, Anne, receives the Olympic torch in Athens, Greece, for onward journey through UK cities and towns to London, finally
Pride, performance and politics have shaped the contributions of black people to the Olympic Games through the years. Idorenyin Uyoe* takes a look at the milestones of their participation.
Every four years, athletes, officials and royalty from across the globe gather in a city near you for the "five ring" circus known as the Summer Olympic Games. But if conventional thinking expects a festival of fun and games, the financial and political elements of this mega event tell an entirely different story. The Olympic brand has become so powerful, so pervasive, that for more than a century, the games have become the seminal platform for politics and controversy on the grandest of scales, with athletic competition often relegated to a mere formality. From the Nazi's hijacking the Olympic platform to put an acceptable face on the racism and brutality of the Third Reich, to the super power lead boycotts of the1980s, governments, movements and organizations the world over have come to recognize the power and global reach of the Olympics. While its founders intended the Olympic festival to symbolise friendly competition among the world's nations, it's safe to say those days are long since gone, and in fact, really never were.
From visible protests on the medal podium in Mexico City, to a native Aborigine woman from Australia lighting the Olympic flame in Sydney, black people, the world over, have been an integral part of the Olympic experience, many playing key roles in transforming the Olympic Games into the most recognizable brand in all of sports.
Black people have always had a healthy respect for the Olympic Games, skilfully using the platform to draw attention to areas of racial injustice, even if their own interest were not directly affected. Nowhere was race and anti Semitism more central in ideology than in Berlin, 1936.
The Nazi Games, Berlin, 1936
If history allows a peek into the future, then the International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials had a lot to learn. Following the LA Olympics of 1932, the Nazi party in Germany, which had swept into power, vehemently opposed the possibility of Aryans competing in the Olympic Games with "inferiors like Slavs, Blacks and Jews", saying it was a "disgrace for whites to compete with woolly haired niggers." The Nuremberg laws, which reclassified German Jews as "subjects" rather than citizens and stripped them of all basic rights and freedoms, were passed in Germany a year earlier, yet IOC officials, inexplicably refused to move the 1936 Games out of Berlin. The German Chancellor Adolph Hitler was keen to use the Olympics to prove his theory that Aryans were "The Master Race," implying they would dominate the medal count in Berlin. Adding to the Fuhrer's confidence was the stunning defeat of the seemingly invincible and previously unbeaten, Black American boxing heavyweight champion, Joe Louis, by the German Max Schmeling at Yankee stadium two months before the start of the Berlin games.
Influential Jewish groups in the United States mounted a furious campaign for the American Olympic Committee (AOC) to boycott the Berlin Games in view of Hitler's treatment of Jews in Germany, citing his anti Semitic views as being counter to the Olympic ideal. American Jewish leaders solicited the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to join the boycott effort. While the NAACP agreed to join their Jewish brothers in solidarity, the request, though well intentioned, was beyond ironic, considering Black Americans were not allowed to compete with or against whites in the southern part of the United States due to segregation laws. Jim Crow laws were to the US, what apartheid was to South Africa.
The boycott effort ultimately failed, and the United States sent an Olympic team to Berlin, and in so doing, gave Hitler a chance to witness, up close and personal, the greatest track and field athlete of that or any era Jesse Owens.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos doing the Black Power salute at the 1968 Games in Mexico which got them expelled from the games.
For the record, the Black American athletes who ultimately made the trip to Berlin spoke of a very open and hospitable environment, noting they were given the "Royal Treatment" and allowed to go to movie theatres or anywhere else they wanted, unhindered, things they dared not try at home, especially in the segregated south.
Though Owens' efforts to become the first Olympian to win four gold medals in athletics in a single Olympiad are well chronicled, accounts of Hitler personally slighting him are misconstrued. It was Cornelius Johnson, a Black American who won gold in the men's high jump, who was most directly snubbed by Hitler. Earlier on the opening day of the games, Hitler invited the first two medal winners, both Germans, to his box to offer them personal congratulations. Johnson, who had just won the last event of opening day, approached Hitler's box expecting the German Chancellor to offer similar congratulatory gestures. Hitler had no such intentions. He abruptly left the stadium just as Johnson mounted the steps to approach his box. While Nazi officials contended Hitler's departure was due to darkness, Olympic officials weren't buying it. The following day, IOC President Henri de Balliet sent words to Hitler that if he would congratulate one gold medal winner publicly, he would need to congratulate all the gold medal winners publicly. Fearing this meant he might need to congratulate blacks and Jews, Hitler's choice was easy. He simply wouldn't congratulate any more medal winners in public. But as author, David Clay Large, noted in his book "The Nazi Games", few people knew of this secret compromise at the time, which was why many Black Americans were outraged when Hitler failed to acknowledge the unprecedented achievements of Jesse Owens' four gold medals in a single Olympiad.
However, amidst the controversy of the Berlin Games was the performance of the Black American sprinter Mack Robinson. Though he finished second to Jesse Owens in the men's 200 meter final to win silver medal, his younger brother Jackie Robinson, would go on to break the colour barrier in major league baseball in America 11 years later.
Shortly after the closing ceremonies of the Berlin Games, Hitler's Third Reich began preparing for war. But if the Allies fought World War II to defeat tyranny and racism in an effort to provide liberty and justice for all people of all nations, someone forgot to include Black Americans. While blacks fought bravely for their country during the war, they were still denied basic freedoms at home after the war ended. Two raised fists in Mexico City in 1968 therefore became the only images needed to communicate the black experience in 1960s America.
John Carlos, US Bronze medalist in 200m at the 1968 Games. He did the Black Power salute with Tommie Smith which got them expelled from the games.
Black Power, Mexico City, 1968
America was on fire in 1968. Riots raged in some of America's largest cities, as discriminatory policies opened fresh wounds in the nation's fragile psyche. Peaceful civil rights rallies were being held in cities across the nation, a nation which was at that time also fighting an unpopular war in Vietnam, half a world away. Compounding the darkness of the time, were the two bullets that cut down civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April, and Senator Robert F. Kennedy two months later. The Black American community was conflicted about its participation of the Mexico City Olympics in view of racial sentiments back home, feeling less of a connection to the flag they represented abroad and yearning for progress in equal rights back home. While a few prominent Black American athletes refused to participate in those Olympics, like the most dominant college basketball player of the time, UCLA's Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar), the black American athletes on the Olympic team voted almost unanimously to attend the Games, and use them as a platform for mounting individual athlete protest. Two pairs of black socks and a set of black gloves made statements that forever defined the signature moment of the Mexico City Olympics.
Tommy Smith and Juan Carlos completed the men's 200-meter final, finishing first and third respectively (The white Australian Peter Norman, finished second). With cameras rolling and a global TV audience in tow, Smith and Carlos approached the medal podium wearing their Team USA tracksuits, no shoes, and pair of black socks. Each wore a single black glove on each hand. As the American National Anthem was being played to honour Smith's win, both Smith and Carlos raised a black gloved fist in the air, giving the Black Power salute in solidarity with events back home. The original plan was for both Smith and Carlos to wear black gloves on both hands but Carlos forgot his pair of gloves back in the Athletes village, so it was actually the silver medal winner Norman, who suggested Smith and Carlos wear one glove each, which was why Smith raised his right fist, while Carlos raised his left. For his part, Norman wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity with the Smith and Carlos.
If Smith and Carlos' gesture seemed to be frozen in time, their penalty, however, at the hands of Olympic Oligarch could not have been more severe, and in some ways, more hypocritical. The President of the IOC, Avery Brundage from the United States, immediately suspended Smith and Carlos from the Games, explaining that their political statements had no place on the Olympic stage. Ironically, it was the same Avery Brundage, who as head of the AOC in 1936 raised no objections to the Nazi salute used so often during the Berlin games. To properly contextualise the Brundage position, one salute championed equal rights, while the other represented the denial of basic rights to Jews and minorities. One was punished, while the other was not.
As for the silver medallist Norman, the Australian Olympic Committee suspended him for two years, even taking Norman's penalty a step further. During the Australian Olympic qualifiers in 1971, Norman's times in the 100m and 200m easily earned him a place on the Australian team for the1972 Olympics in Munich, yet team officials decided against sending any sprinters, male or female, to represent Australia at those 1972 Olympics. No satisfactory explanation was ever given. It remains the only time in its brilliant sporting history that Australia failed to field a sprint team for the Olympics. When Norman died in 2006 at the age of 64, both Tommy Smith and Juan Carlos were pallbearers.
Completely lost in the controversy were the dominant performances of black athletes at those Games. The Mexico City Olympic Games, up to that point, represented the most successful Olympic outing for a US team ever, which included the Black American Bob Beamon leaping an incredulous 29' 2 ¼" in the men's long jump, setting a world record which would endure for over two decades. For many, Beamon's "leap of the century" into the record books was just a number, a number no one really remembers, unlike the number eleven; the number in Munich four years later, no one would forget.
The word "terrorism" entered Olympic lexicon for the first time during the 1972 Games in Munich, when a masked terrorist, claiming to represent the group Black September, peered over a balcony in the Athletes village in Munich, and directly into living rooms around the world, forever shattering what was left of Olympic innocence. Inside the Israeli dormitory, eleven athletes, coaches and officials, were being held by armed gunmen while political demands were relayed in front of a global viewing audience. Regrettably, all eleven (11) Israeli hostages would be killed; competition was suspended for a day and Israel withdrew from the Games.
In the wake of those tragic events, IOC President Brundage would once again make utterly insensitive and irresponsible remarks, totally misreading the public mood. Prior to the start of the Munich Games, African countries threatened to boycott the Games if White Rhodesia, whose government excluded the majority black population, were allowed to participate. The IOC buckled, and Rhodesia was barred from the games just three days before opening ceremonies. Its 44 athletes, who were already in Munich, went home without competing. "Rhodesia" as a country, would never again participate in the Olympic Games under that name. In 1980, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, held multi party elections and ushered in majority black rule. Brundage, in front of 80,000 people at the Olympic Stadium in a memorial service held for the slain Israeli athletes and officials said, "The Games of the 20th Olympiad have been subject to two savage attacks. We lost the Rhodesian battle against naked political blackmail. We have only the strength of a great ideal. I'm sure the public will agree we cannot allow a handful of terrorists to destroy this nucleus of international cooperation and goodwill we have in the Olympic movement." And with those words a fresh crises ensued. Apartheid was the term given to the system of racial separation employed by South Africa to delineate societal services and privileges along racial lines in an effort to preserve white minority rule, at the total exclusion of blacks and other minorities in self-determination. Black African delegations threatened to withdraw from the '72 Games if Brundage didn't retract those statements. In an emergency meeting of the Supreme Council of Sport on Africa, Brundage was forced to issue a partial withdrawal, and expressed regret about his insensitive comments. The Games did go on, though without the Israeli's, whose delegation soon left Munich in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
If healing was required following the tragic events in Munich, the question of apartheid in South Africa would dim the illusion of unity in the Olympic family when Queen Elizabeth II, opened the Games of the 20th Olympiad in Montreal, Canada. Due to its official policy of racial discrimination, South Africa, banned from Olympic competition in 1963, was largely a pariah nation among major sporting bodies around the world. When rugby power New Zealand allowed its national team, the "All Blacks" to tour South Africa, black African nations opposed to apartheid, petitioned the IOC to similarly ban New Zealand from the '76 games. Weighing heavily on the minds of the African countries, were the events in the black township of Soweto, South Africa, barely a month before the start of the Olympics. White police killed scores of unarmed students during a peaceful student rally to protest the introduction of the white Afrikaans language as the official medium of education instruction. When the IOC argued rugby was not an Olympic sport, and therefore refused to rescind its invitation to New Zealand, 26 African nations plus Iraq and Guyana (in a show of support), officially boycotted the 1976 Games. The Montreal Games were a financial disaster and served as a template on how not to plan the Olympic Games. The city of Montreal would rack up debts of around $1.5 billion as a result of hosting those Games, debts that it would not finish paying off for another 20 years.
Though Africans were absent from Montreal, Black Americans were most certainly not. Two Black American brothers from St. Louis, Michael and Leon Spinks, would become the first siblings to win Olympic gold medals in the same Olympiad in recognised sport when they outclassed the competition in boxing. Montreal also saw the debut of "The Morehouse Project," Ed Moses, a physics student at historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Moses would win gold in the 400 meter hurdles in Montreal, going on to win an incredible 107 consecutive races, which also included a second gold medal at the 1984 games in Los Angeles, and bronze medal in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea.
US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton meets the NBA great and cultural ambassador Kareem Abdul Jabbar in January 2012 at the State Department in Washington, DC. Abdul Jabbar boycotted the 1968 games in Mexico
Black Women as Worthy Ambassadors
Women, of any colour, were not allowed to compete in the first Olympic Games in 1896, as the founder of the modern Games, Pierre de Coubertin said their inclusion would be "impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect." Women did make their Olympic debut in the Paris Games in 1900, where they competed in lawn tennis and golf, and haven't looked back since. It could reasonably be argued that black women have presented themselves quite admirably in just about every modern Olympic festival this side of Marion Jones. Wyomia Tyus of the US became the first woman to defend her 100-meter title, when she struck gold in 1964 in Tokyo, and again in 1968 in Mexico City. Gail Devers, also of the US, would repeat this feat in Barcelona in 1992, and again in Atlanta in 1996. Wilma Rudolph of the US (though the German team tried to adopt her based on her last name), became the first woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympiad, and Jose Marie Perec of France became the first athlete, male or female, to win the 200 and 400-meter races respectively at the same Olympics. She completed the double right before Michael Johnson of the US did it on the men's side, in Atlanta, 1996.
If consistency and dedication are the ingredients which define an Olympic champion, the Olympic Games have known no better athlete than Jackie Joyner Kersee, who won back to back Heptathlons in 1988 and 1992, as well as one gold and two bronze medals in her other discipline, the women's long jump. She would lose that event during the 1996 games in Atlanta, to Nigeria's first ever -Olympic gold medallist Chioma Ajunwa, while the Silver went to another black woman, Fiona May of Great Britain. Though controversial in the end, the Olympic story would be incomplete without the flamboyance and grace of Florence Griffith Joyner, whose combination of elegance, style and speed, introduced the era of "the beautiful" athlete.
A former physical training instructor in the British Army, Kelly Holmes became only the second Olympian in history to double in both the 800 and 1,500 meter races respectively, which she achieved in the Athens Olympics of 2004. A year later, Queen Elizabeth II awarded Holmes the very prestigious title of Dame Commander of the British Empire.
Tennis was absent from the Olympics from 1928 through 1984, but when it returned, it was the Black American, Zina Garrison who claimed bronze in singles competition in 1988 and a gold in doubles that same year, effectively paving the way for the success and class of future Black tennis stars, Venus and Serena Williams, who both have Olympic gold medals.
Compelling storylines in sports transcend country and gender. None is more heartfelt than Cathy Freeman, the black Australian sprinter of Aborigine descent, who became the first native Australian to win an Olympic gold medal, doing it in her native Sydney during the 2000 Games. Freeman was selected to light the Olympic cauldron at those same games. Though now retired Cathy Freeman remains an inspiration for women in sports, the world over.
And then there is boxing, the sweet science at the Olympics. A young "Sugar" named Ray Leonard used the Montreal games as a pre cursor to a brilliant professional career. The Olympics, for the most part, have provided the platform for notable black boxers, whom we remember more as professionals, but cannot forget their start as Olympians. The greatest of them all, is of course, "The Greatest." An 18 year old Cassius Clay, later Muhammad Ali, won gold in Rome in 1960, leading an array of pugilists who would define boxing for the next half century. Future heavyweight champions Joe Frazier, Tokyo 1964, George Foreman, Mexico City, 1968, the aforementioned Spinks brothers, Michael and Leon in 1976,and Lennox Lewis in 1988, would go on to claim the most valuable prize in professional sports, the heavyweight championship of the world, having won the most valuable prize in amateur sports, an Olympic gold medal. Evander Holyfield, bronze in Los Angeles 1984, Riddick Bowe and Roy Jones Jr., both Silver in Seoul 1988, were among black Olympians who went on to win heavyweight championships, despite falling short in their quest for Olympic gold. Where was Mike Tyson in all this? Well, he lost in the US Olympic trials to eventual 1984 gold medallist Henry Tillman, a loss Tyson made sure he decisively revenged a few years later.
Boxing, though organized in structure, violent by nature, was not immune to cold war politics, and as a result, the most decorated boxer in Olympic history never turned professional. Teofilo Stevenson of Cuba, was the first person to win three Olympic Gold Medals in the heavyweight division, from 1972-1980, a feat later duplicated by fellow Cuban Felix Savon, who won heavyweight gold in 1992, 1996 and 2000 respectively. Neither ever boxed professionally.
Africa Awakes When barefooted Ethiopian Abebe Bikila led the marathon field into Rome's Olympic stadium in 1960, his first of back-to-back Olympic titles, he ushered in the era of African emergence, if not dominance, in the distance races. And they've been running into Olympic lore ever since. Ever since Kip Keino of Kenya, set the table with his middle distance heroics, winning the men's 3000 meter Steeplechase in Munich in 1972, a Kenyan has won that event in every Olympics that the country's been a part of. They haven't lost in 40 years! The tradition of great African distance runners has been upheld over the years, often running through North and East Africa respectively, with Said Aouita and Hicham El Guerrouj, both from Morocco and the great Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia pacing the field.
In Olympic team competition, Nigeria stunned Argentina to win gold in men's soccer in 1996 in Atlanta, the first gold medal in team sports for a black African country. Cameroon would defend "Africa's gold" in that event four years later in Sydney. However, it is worthy to note that technically, Zimbabwe's women's field hockey team won gold in Moscow in 1980, but none of their players was black.
Legendary Olympian Ed Moses and British counterpart Denis Lewis, heptathlon gold medal winner
Scandals and Controversy
Sport has grown into a multi-billion-dollar global business but sadly, it is not immune from trouble. Unfortunately, black athletes have been associated with perhaps two of the biggest scandals in Olympic history. When Jamaican born Ben Johnson of Canada tested positive for steroids following the men's 100-meter final in Seoul in 1988, it became the biggest drug related scandal in the history of the sport, a dubious distinction that still holds. Johnson's gold was withdrawn, and he was disgraced off the Korean peninsula and into oblivion. Despite the scandal the tradition of great Jamaican born Olympic champion sprinters has endured, with Linford Christie of Great Britain, Donavan Bailey of the Canada and Usain Bolt on the men's side, and Veronica Campbell-Brown, Shelly Ann Fraser and Melanie Walker on the women's side. It's pertinent to note that Frank Fredericks of Namibia, though a great sprinter, could probably medal in hard luck. Fredericks finished second in the 100 meters and 200 meters ... TWICE -1992 and 1996.
Following years of denial, Marion Jones of the US finally admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs in the run up to her multi medal winning performance during the 2000 games in Sydney. As a result, the IOC withdrew her medals from the Sydney Olympics, and expunged her participation from the Olympic record books.
But perhaps a more insightful spec of controversy happened away from any Olympic venue, and has more than a twinge of irony associated with it. In 1987, then Los Angeles Dodgers Vice President, Al Campanis, in a news interview, famously said that blacks don't have the "necessities" to run a major sports franchise, and lack the gracefulness and buoyancy to be good swimmers. The Dodgers would fire the 71-year-old Campanis, and a little known swimmer Anthony Nesty, would burn those stereotypes, seemingly forever. Nesty, a black swimmer from Suriname, a former Dutch colony in South America, upset the heavily favoured American Matt Biondi to win the gold in the men's 100-meter butterfly event. He became the first black man to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming, and would remain unbeaten in the event for the next three years. Twenty years later in Beijing, Cullen Jones, a Black American, would swim the third leg of the victorious US men's 4 x 100 freestyle relay, helping Michael Phelps win the third of his record setting eight gold medals.
It's been over 100 years since John Taylor became the first black man to win an Olympic gold medal, doing so in the 1908 Games, ironically, in London, the same city that prepares to welcome the world this summer to the Games of the 30th Olympiad. Black pioneers from around the world have shaped the Olympics into the "must see" sporting event of our time, bringing us some of the fondest moments in Olympic history. Who can forget Barcelona, 1992, where Derek Redmond of Great Britain pulled a hamstring in the semi finals of the men's 400 meters, only for his father Jim, to leap down from the stands to help his son cross the finish line in the semi finals of the men's 400 meters. Or Carl Lewis becoming the first athlete to win four consecutive long jump titles, the last coming at the athletically fossilised age of 35. And Britain's Daley Thompson, only the second man to win back-to-back decathlon event, in Moscow in 1980 and in Los Angeles in 1984.
And the best is yet to come. This summer in London, black athletes are sure to provide more inspired moments and spirited performances, representing their countries with pride, while eschewing the politics which are all too familiar in big -time sport. Black athletes have made immeasurable contributions in transforming the Olympic vision from a sideshow in the early 1900's, to the biggest stage, a stage where black athletes continue to dazzle and perform with sporting brilliance.
* NO E K'ABO COVER IMAGE FOUND