One of the powerful images of the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 were the bowed heads and raised fists of sprinters gold and bronze medalists, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. They were protesting the state of race relations in the United States.
But in 1964, a less well known protest was made by a three-time gold medalist who actually called for a boycott of the Tokyo Games. In the 1950s and 1960s, one of the most respected of American track and field athletes was Mal Whitfield, a winner of five medals in the 1948 Olympics in London, and the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, including two golds in the 800 meters in both Games, and one in the 4×400 meter relay in London.
And as related in this New York Times article, a member of the US Air Force’s famed Tuskegee Airmen, Whitfield flew 27 bombing missions during the Korean War, and became the first US military serviceman on active duty to win gold medals in the Olympic Games. He was also the first black man to receive the prestigious Sullivan Award, given to the nation’s most outstanding amateur athlete, in 1954.
Whitfield, who passed away on November 18, 2015 at the age of 91, was one of the most respected American athletes and sports ambassadors of his time. And so in retrospect, it seems surprising that in Ebony Magazine’s March 1964 edition, Whitfield penned this story titled “Let’s Boycott the Olympics”.
“I advocate that every Negro athlete eligible to participate in the Olympic Games in Japan next October boycott the games if Negro Americans by that time have not been guaranteed full and equal rights as first-class citizens. I make this proposal for two reasons: First, it is time for American Negro athletes to join in the civil rights fight – a fight that is far from won, despite certain progress made during the past year. For the most part, Negro athletes have been conspicuous by their absence from the numerous civil rights battles around the country. Second, it is time for America to live up to its promises of Liberty, Equality and Justice for all, or be shown up to the worlds as a nation where the color of one’s skin takes precedence over the quality of one’s mind and character.”
“What prestige would the United States have if every single Negro athlete, after qualifying for the U. S. team, simply decided to stay at home and not compete because adequate civil rights legislations had not been passed by Congress? For one thing, such action would seriously dampen American foreign policy during a crucial period in history. Sensible American politicians would then know that freedom means a great deal more to Negroes than nice-sounding promises in platform speeches of the approaching rational elections.”
Whitfield cited the large number of sprinters, boxers, jumpers for example who would diminish the US medal haul significantly if they stayed home.
“I think every athlete and every coach should be dedicated to the real purpose of going abroad to represent a ‘free country’. We are not representing a ‘free country’ when we do not stand for our equal rights.”