Features — 04 October 2013 — by Michael Finnegan
The 1968 Black Power Salute

To quote the lyrics from the song, “Ain’t it funny how time slips away”: “Well hello there, my, it’s been a long, long time. How am I doing? Oh well, I guess I am doing fine. It’s been so long now; it seems it was only yesterday, and ain’t it funny how time slips right away”.

I can remember a small Belize team getting prepared for the October 12th – October 27th Olympic Games in Mexico City. It seems to me it was just yesterday Colin Thurton, Sonny Meighan and others were at the M.C.C. Grounds training and were in high spirits getting ready to participate in the Games.

I can remember in the evenings, especially on the weekends, that there was a very high level of public participation in the training of our athletes. Fans came out in droves in special support for our athletes and so it was that they left the shores of British Honduras for Mexico City.

There was controversy over sending a Belizean delegation to the Games. Arguments were that our athletes were not ready, were not prepared, were not suited and were not relevant for these Games. It was said that they were “out of their league” and that it would be a waste of time and money to send athletes to these games. The naysayers argued, let’s get a bunch of youth and train them over the next four years, prepare them well and then participate. The voice of the local Olympic Association, Gilmore Hinkson, argued that we needed to be exposed as a people and as a country and that the exposure would be good for our athletes and our country, and so it was that a small Belizean team headed to Mexico City for the 1968 Summer Olympics.

So you see, we have been sending representatives to participate in these Summer Olympics games for 45 years without any athletic success, and we continue to argue that exposure is worthwhile and that it is important for the name of our country to be recognized around the world. It is also generally believed that the interaction and exchanges between our athletes and officials and their counterparts is valuable in improving our national capacity and performance.

45 years ago, the 1968 Olympic Games were the first to be staged in Latin America and the first to be staged in a country whose official language was Spanish and where very little English was spoken. It was 45 years ago that some 112 nations participated in these games. 5,530 athletes were registered to take part in the events, among them 4,750 males and 780 females. It was 45 years ago that a country named British Honduras, now Belize, participated in these Summer Olympic Games for the first time. It was a welcomed first also for Barbados as an independent country, and West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany) and East Germany (German Democratic Republic), who participated for the first time in these games as separate countries. (The effect of Cold War rivalry imposed separation on the German nation and divided the City of Berlin after World War II between Soviet and Western influence. This situation would remain until 1988 in the process toward Germany’s unification.)

It was 45 years ago the country of Singapore returned to the Games in 1968 as an independent country after competing as part of the Malaysian 1964 team. The Democratic Republic of the Congo and our neighboring Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua participated for the first time. And just imagine, this would be the first time Belize was only a “stone’s throw” away from the venue for the Summer Olympic Games.

It was 45 years ago that the Republic of South Africa, then under the apartheid regime, which had jailed Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress (A.N.C.), was invited to these Games and was told that all segregation and discrimination in sport had to be eliminated by 1972. All African countries and African-American athletes created a loud noise protesting that if the apartheid South Africa was allowed to participate in these games they would boycott the 1968 Games. Eastern Bloc countries (those influenced by the U.S.S.R.) also threatened to boycott the games. In early April of 1968 the International Olympic Committee (I.O.C.) decided that ‘it would be most unwise for South Africa to participate”. And so it was that the African nations and the African -American athletes waged a successful protest to deny apartheid South Africa’s participation. South Africa remained under I.O.C. sanction and excluded from the Games until reforms led to the dismantling of the apartheid regime in the early 1990s.

In 1963 at the 60th I.O.C. meeting in Baden-Baden, West Germany, Mexico City was successful in its bid over Detroit, U.S.A., Lyon in France and Buenos Aires, Argentina, gaining the majority of votes to be selected as host for the 1968 Olympic Games. It is not an easy process for countries to host these games. Candidates are taken through a rigorous evaluation of their competence to host the games. For Mexico City to have been chosen to host the games spoke volumes for the advancement of Latin America. But what the I.O.C. did not know was that there was quietly growing discontent within Mexico. There were protests against the Mexican Government clamoring for policies to increase the economic standard of living for Mexicans and to end the political suppression of the
labour unions and the opposition political parties in Mexico.

45 years ago marches, protests and demonstrations all came to a head in August of 1968, two months before the Olympics. These marches, protests and demonstrations were gathering significant people participation. At one stage activities by certain organizations to estimate the number of persons in attendance were staged at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (U.N.A.M.), with the participants being mainly students. Mexican authorities viewed the protests as something which could jeopardize their role as host for the Summer Games.

Ten days before the opening ceremony, the Mexican government ordered that the gatherings in the Plaza de Las Tres Culturas had to come to an end. Some 5,000 soldiers with 200 tanks surrounded the plaza. Scores of protestors and scores of civilians died in the struggle for human dignity and over 1,000 persons were arrested and jailed. The Mexican government, in the fight to save the 1968 Olympic Games, portrayed what was happening in Mexico as “a violent student uprising”. The 1960s were really rough times for all parts of the world.

Tommie Smith, who was the gold medalist in the 200-metre sprint, and John Carlos, who won the bronze, embarrassed the so-called greatest nation on earth, the United States of America. During the playing of the American National Anthem at the medal ceremony for the men’s 200-metre event, Tommie Smith and John Carlos took the podium wearing black socks as their shoes and raised black gloved fists, the Black Power salute, as their way of taking a stand for Civil Rights. The I.O.C. immediately banned Smith and Carlos from participation in the Olympic Games for life while the Australian Peter Norman who ran 2nd in the same event and wore an American Civil Rights badge in support of Carlos and Smith on the podium was excluded from Australia’s 1972 Olympic selection.

Mexico City’s 7,350 ft. elevation above sea level presented challenges for the athletes’ performance. But despite the thin air several Olympic records were broken. American Bob Beamon’s spectacular 29 ft. 2 ½ inch long jump remains today as the Olympic record and stood for 23 years as the World Record. John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania won world recognition and respect, finishing the marathon in spite of the obvious pain of a dislocated knee. It is worth mentioning that this was the first Games at which there was a dominant presence of African endurance athletes. The medal count shows that athletes from the Mother Continent won at least one medal in all distance running events from the 800 metres to the marathon. Among other firsts in the highlights from the Mexico City Summer Games was Norma Enriquetta Basilo de Sotelo of Mexico, who became the first woman to light the Olympic Cauldron with the Olympic flame in the symbolic opening of the Olympiad.

To top it all off, Belizean 100-metre sprinter Colin Thurton was not registered by the Belizean officials to participate in the 100-metre race. As this was Belize’s first outing to the Olympics, perhaps we may attribute this oversight to the Belize Olympic Association’s lack of experience and familiarity with the I.O.C. procedures.

The 1960’s were riddled with protests all over the world. Black Americans were fighting for Civil Rights and were standing up at last to the oppressive White America. Civil Rights leaders like Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure), Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panthers rose to prominence in White America. The phrase “Black Power Now” was ringing throughout the world and so it was that when the American Olympic team went to Mexico City they could never believe that what could not happen, happened. The echoes of the Black Power Salute, the symbol of a people’s determined resistance to inequality and injustice, still reverberates around the globe.

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