At the Olympic Games in Mexico on October 16, 1968, two African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals at the end of the grueling 200m race.
They took the podium to receive their medals. Just as the American national anthem was beginning, an event that would have historical repercussions had happened. Two American athletes lowered their heads and raised their fists in protest against apartheid in their country as their national anthem was played.
Meanwhile, to emphasize the poverty of blacks, they had taken off their shoes and had black gloves on their hands. Smith with a black scarf to represent black pride; Carlos was on the podium with a beaded necklace symbolizing solidarity with the blue-collar workers. The beads were for those who were lynched, killed, hanged and tarred.
The consequences of this quiet but powerful protest were dire for them and their families. Smith and Carlos were accused of trying to bring politics into the stadium. They were kicked out of the team and from the Olympic games. Carlos’ brothers who served as soldiers in Vietnam were promptly discharged from the army. Carlos’ ex-wife committed suicide. Smith and Carlos were unemployed and could not even make a living afterwards.
This courageous protest by two athletes in 1968 is today considered one of the most powerful and famous peaceful sport activism in history.
For centuries, sport wasn’t just seen as a way to compete or have fun. Sports have been heavily linked to politics. It was used to rule, manipulate, and even numb societies. Over time, it turned into a platform for effective protests, again as a reflection of society.
Of course, the social and societal power of sports is unmatched. In parallel with the expectations of the society, sports are also changing. Issues such as basic human rights and equality are now discussed at the center of sports. The issues that are triggered and grown from here are also spreading to the society in waves.
With their influence and power of reach, athletes stand out as spokespersons that convey messages and raise awareness by being at the forefront in parallel with such ruptures and expectations in the society.
Sports and athletes play a critical role in the impact they can have on the social, economic and even environmental issues facing the world today.
One of the symbolic events of the last period is still fresh in memory. On August 26, 2016 during the National Football League (NFL) pre-season friendlies in the United States, Colin Kaepernick made an anti-racist protest and knelt during the national anthem.
Kaepernick’s move resonated with different wings. This symbolic movement, which he started, spread to the sports community with the Black Lives Matter movement, which gained momentum after the death of George Floyd in May 2020, and many athletes began to show their reaction to the discriminatory attitudes and behaviors against black people by kneeling.
Qatar World Cup is talked about with protests more than football!
The World Cup held in Qatar also witnessed protests that will go down in history. Criticized for issues such as human rights violations and gender equality, Qatar, despite having Fifa behind it, cannot prevent the protests of national teams of different countries with different reasons and methods.
Here is the Iranian national team. Perhaps at the cost of their lives, they took a bold stand against the oppressive regime in their country, making a silent protest. Before the England game, they remained silent, not singing their country’s national anthem. There were also protests in the stands.
Iran’s team captain, Ehasan Hajsafi, conveyed his condolences to the families who lost their loved ones before the match in Doha, saying ‘let them know that we are with them’ and added: “We have to accept that the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy.”
England, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and Wales national teams wanted to play with rainbow colored OneLove armbands to protest Qatar’s gender identity policies and discrimination. But Fifa has announced that the result of this behavior will be a yellow card penalty to be shown to the team captains.
Against this, Germany made a different protest. The German players lined up in the traditional line-up before the Japan game to protest against FIFA, who almost scolded and threatened the teams, and each of the 11 players took a team photo by covering their mouths with their right hands.
Meanwhile, the German Football Federation announced that it has filed a lawsuit against the international sports court in Lausanne, CAS, regarding Fifa’s blocking off the diversity and human rights symbol. Deutsche Telekom, Volkswagen, Adidas, Lufthansa and Commerzbank, the corporate sponsors of the German National Team, are also under public pressure to react on this issue.
Sports as a civilian power!
Sport is not far from society. On the contrary, it is a mirror of society in many points. With its transformative power and influence, it has a clear and critical role not only in competition and advocacy, but also in social and societal issues.
It is possible to see many examples of sports activism that have provided a social break in this direction in history. It is obvious that this will increase in the future and will come to the fore with the effects it will create…