During the 1960s, sports sociologist Harry Edwards helped found the Olympic Project for Human Rights which called for, among other things, a boycott of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics to protest racism in sports and society. The boycott was called off, but athletes were still encouraged to protest. During their time on the medal stand, African-American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their arms in a black-power salute. Edwards, author of Revolt of the Black Athlete and Sociology of Sport, talked with Dave Zirin (www.edgeofsports.com) about the impact of that action, as well as what sports tells us about U.S. society.
Dave Zirin: I was surprised at the level of fanfare last year about the anniversary of the human rights protests at the 1968 Olympics. Why do you think it resonates so many decades later?
Harry Edwards: One, you had a group of young men—I was 24, I think John Carlos was 23, Tommie Smith was 24, Lee Evans was 21—and we determined that we could impact the course of events through American society, maybe throughout the world, through athletics, something that many people considered the toy department of human affairs, especially with the burgeoning civil rights movement going on, the anti-war movement, the student movement, and so forth.
The second part was that the impact of the movement culminating in a demonstration in Mexico City was part of a more general effort during that period that involved everybody from Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Curt Flood, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—you had a whole generation of people involved in what came to be known as the revolt of the black athlete. So it was an iconic, emblematic commemoration of an era, and I think Carlos and Smith epitomized the basic questions we raised at that time.
Are there takeaway lessons for activists and athletes today?