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John Carlos Remembers His Scandalous Podium Salute At The Mexico Olympics 1968 (INTERVIEW)

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JOHN CARLOS
John Carlos remembers his podium salute at the 1968 Mexico Olympics | Getty

45 years ago today (16 October 1968), two men raised their fists to the sky, and made their presence felt.

One of those two men, John Carlos, spoke to HuffPostUK last year about that extraordinary day, and the impact on his life ever since...

"God gave me many gifts – running was one of them."

So says John Carlos, 44 years after another of his fine qualities, courage, meant he stood on the podium in Mexico City in 1968, having won the bronze medal in the 200 metres final, and helped create one of the defining images of the modern Olympics - his left fist raised, along with gold medallist Tommy Smith, in defiance of human rights abuse and protest for race relations.

In London, nearly half a century later, Doctor Carlos (now a trained counsellor, living in California) is as spirited as ever, and has honed his argument for those who believe that sport is not the place for political gestures:

"If human rights is a political statement, then so be it.

"To say there are no politics in the Olympics, I can point out a dozen other ways there are… the guy who is head of the Committee, you don’t think he was invoking politics when he took them to Nazi Germany, or took athletes off the teams because they were Jews? It’s nonsense.

"How can I subtract my life and my environment, and my sport or the Olympic games and say it’s not political? Humanity is all up and down, and all around the Olympics. If they think it’s not, then shame on them."

john carlos
John Carlos had been an activist for civil rights before his moment came in Mexico in 1968

Carlos had been a founding member of the Olympic Movement for Human Rights, before his speed in the 200 m furnished him with the opportunity he craved... it was "a lifetime of planning, 40 minutes in execution".

"We conceived the idea just before the final, and brought all the artefacts to the table," he remembers now. "The gloves, the shirt over my USA jersey, the scarf on Tommy’s neck, the beads on my neck, black socks, no shoes, rolled up pants… it took roughly 45 minutes."

Was there ever a moment of doubt, or fear? He shakes his head.

"As soon as we won, I was thinking, let’s get it on. It was a matter of us getting out there, and setting the world on fire, resurrecting people’s consciousness, making people wonder what could be so wrong to make those guys do something like that… it wasn’t about the consequences, it was about doing the deed. After the deed, there would be nothing they could do to take the deed away."

tommy smith
When Tommy Smith broke the tape in the 200metres final in 1968, it was "let's get it on" for him and Carlos

The image to this day remains striking in its symmetry, two athletes sharing one pair of gloves (apparently this was deliberate, with Carlos citing propaganda afterwards as claiming one of them had forgotten to bring any). But was either of them worried that the other one wouldn't follow through?

"I was concerned, because I felt then and now, that had Tommy not won the race, I don’t think Tommy would have done it. And I don’t think it would have been successful had either of us done it by ourselves, it had to be a joint effort. If I’d done it on my own, it would have been forgotten the next month. God had a very strong involvement in this activity taking place."

It has not been a story of singular triumph for the men on the podium that day - the silver medallist Peter Norman was demonised in his native Australia for wearing the same human rights badge, something that still incenses Carlos: "the only thing he did wrong was to strive to be the best he could be, in a race that Tommy Smith and I happened to be in." Both Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Peter Norman's funeral in Melbourne in 2006.

For himself, the biggest cost was undoubtedly the loss of his wife: "My wife couldn’t take it any more and took her life. That was the biggest loss, for the simple reason that I always felt that I should have sat down and thought my way through how to protect my family better. I could handle anything, but my wife couldn’t take any more and didn’t know where to go. That was a tremendous price. But I came to the conclusion that my wife would have had to kill herself a thousand times and nothing would have changed, because what I did had to be done, and God brought me here until it was done, and he protected me from that point to this."

tommy smith john carlos
Two men who happened to shake up the world nearly half a century ago

God, and the inspiration of Dr Martin Luther King, are never far away on the subject of Carlos' motivation, and it is evident he shares the latter's gift of visual communication:

"The gift that I had, more than anything, was to have the choice to be involved, or not. It wasn’t a mandate. And I was in the right place to provide a shock treatment. As Dr King described it, I just had to drop a rock in the lake and watch it create waves."

Dr Carlos' running days are well behind him ("I have a metal knee now," he says cheerfully), but his gesture lives with him and inspires him still:

"When I look in the mirror, I realise it was a long time ago, but in my mind’s eye, I can see it right now.

"I have no desire to add anything, I would take nothing away, it was perfect."

The John Carlos Story, by John Carlos and Dave Zirin, is published by Haymarket books - click here for info

Some extraordinary images proving, as John Carlos says, that politics is never far away from the Olympics...

Black Power Salute Mexico 1968
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