Dave Zinn poses the question why the image of the raised fists of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics continues to resonate forty years later. Zinn writes,
There's another reason why the image of raised, black-gloved fists has retained its power. Smith and Carlos sacrificed fame and fortune for a larger cause -- civil rights. As Carlos told me in 2003: "A lot of the [black] athletes thought that winning [Olympic] medals would supersede or protect them from racism. But even if you won a medal, it ain't going to save your momma [from the effects of racism]. It ain't going to save your sister..."
Carlos' view resonates because we still live in a world where racism exists. If Hurricane Katrina taught us nothing else, it's that for every Barack Obama and Condoleezza Rice, there are many communities, including in L.A., where the combination of poverty and racism weigh down black Americans.
It also resonates because Smith and Carlos used the ubiquitous platform of sports to make their stand. Today, sports is a global trillion-dollar business that, thanks to cable television, the Internet and corporate sponsorship, is vastly more influential than four decades ago. Yet the idea that today's athletes would use their hyper-exalted-brought-to-you-by-Nike platform to speak out against injustice seems almost unthinkable. Athletes Etan Thomas of the NBA and Scott Fujita of the NFL have spoken out on war, poverty and racism in the U.S. Some platinum-plated stars on the U.S. Olympic basketball team -- notably Kobe Bryant and LeBron James -- have raised concerns about China's connection to the genocide in Darfur.
The question is whether any Olympic athlete will match the audacity of Smith and Carlos in the 2008 Games. On Friday, the possible appearance of Tibet's flag would again remind us that the world of sports isn't immune to the politics of protest.