Ed Caruthers with picture of silve jump

Tommie Smith was in Tokyo for the 1967 World University Games. A Japanese reporter came up to him and asked him, “Were Negroes now equal to the whites in the way they were treated?”

According to Richard Hoffer and his brilliant book about the 1968 Mexico City Games, Something in the Air, Smith said that they were not. Then Smith was asked if a boycott of the Mexico City Games was a possibility. Smith replied “you cannot rule out the possibility.” Since there was absolutely no talk of boycotts up to that point, Smith’s comment to the Japanese press spread to the international press, and by the time the 200-meter sprinter returned to American and to San Jose State College, otherwise known as “Speed City” for those on the sprint team, he was deluged with requests for interviews.

John Carlos and Tommie Smith
John Carlos and Tommie Smith

By the end of 1967, a sociology professor at San Jose State named Harry Edwards began building a consensus among university administrators and athlete, finding his voice on the issues of black inequality in America. He had formed an organization called the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). On Thanksgiving Day that year, the OPHR via Edwards called for a boycott of the 1968 Olympics. This was soon followed by a list of demands, including

a boycott of all New York Athletic Club events (a logical move since the club maintained indefensible admission policies), It was also demanding the exclusion of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia from the Olympics, integration of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and, as a bonus, the return of Muhammad Ali’s championship crown. Edwards let it be known that they wouldn’t mind if Avery Brundage, “a devout anti-Semitic and anti-Negro personality,” be replaced as head of the IOC.”

In 1967, Ed Caruthers was the best high jumper in the world. After having tasted a bit of what competition with the best in the world was like at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Caruthers was determined to return to Mexico City and win the gold medal. He told me that his track and field teammates in Tokyo, like Mel Pender and Willie Davenport, were committed and working hard to return to the Olympics and redeem themselves of the disappointment they faced in Tokyo. So when confronted with the possibility of a boycott, the initial reaction of these Black American athletes was different from others like Tommie Smith and John Carlos – they did not believe that a boycott was the right play.

“When Dr Martin Luther King was killed on April 4, 1968, there were a lot of things going on in my mind,” Caruthers told me. “What was I going to do? What is this country going to be like? There were a lot of issues that weighed on me. In the end, I was not in favor of the boycott, and I told those guys. I told them we had to run our asses off and win, which could give us more of a voice, more of an ability to throw light on these issues. You don’t get the best audience if you boycott.”

Ed Caruthers and Dick Fosbury

In the end, the desire to compete and to take advantage of the massive audience tuning into the Olympics won over those who considered a boycott. As Smith teammate, John Carlos said in this Orange County Register interview, “I strongly thought boycotting. For many of us, it as a childhood dream to compete in the Olympics. For Ed (Caruthers), it was a double-whammy because he’d been before, gotten a taste and he wanted to go and shine.

As the world saw, Smith and Carlos saw a non-violent way to protest the state of Blacks in America, by famously donning a black glove and raising their fists in the air while bowing their heads as they stood on the winners’ podium and listened to the American national anthem. They had won the gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200-meter sprint, but they were suspended from the rest of the Games for their actions.

As written in that Orange County Register article, Caruthers is still close to Smith and Carlos. A statue dedicated to the two sprinters was placed at their alma mater, San Jose State, remembering that time when they silently but powerfully spoke out for equal rights.

“If they’d boycotted the Games, nobody would remember them,” Caruthers said. “But now, here we are 40 years later, and people are still talking about it.”

Cowboys Cardinals Football
Dallas Cowboys players coaches and owner protesting on September 24

After building for over a year, the National Football League in America is being swept up in a wave of peaceful protests, as players, coaches, and in some cases, owners, are finding ways to silently protest what they believe to be an insensitivity to the issues of race, sparked by comments made in September by the President of the United States.

Referring to an athlete who gets on one knee during the playing of the American national anthem, the President said that such an athlete “disrespects our flag,” and is a “a son of a bitch” who should be fired.

When asked on September 25 at a press conference if the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) would support similar protests in at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, USOC CEO, Scott Blackmun, answered in a way that symbolizes the challenge of protesting at the Olympics.

I think the athletes that you see protesting are protesting because they love their country, not because they don’t. We fully support the right of our athletes and everybody else to express themselves. The Olympic Games themselves, there is a prohibition on all forms of demonstrations, political or otherwise. And that applies no matter what side of the issue you’re taking, no matter where you’re from. … But we certainly recognize the importance of athletes being able to express themselves.

Scott Blackmun

Blackmun’s words are sympathetic regarding an athlete’s right to express views that are deeply personal and important to them. But he does say that the Olympics prohibits “all forms of demonstrations, political or otherwise.” In other words, we respect your right to protest peacefully. But you need to respect the IOC or a National Olympic committee’s right to kick you out if you do so.

In 1968, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who famously stood with gloved hands raised in fists on the medal podium after their gold and bronze medal victories in the 200 meter finals, were consequently forced to leave the Olympic venue.

In 1972, Americans Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett, protested in their own way by standing nonchalantly on the medal stand while the American anthem was playing. Their perceived disrespect resulted in their suspension from further participation at the Munich Olympics, and subsequently in the US team failing to field a 4×400 relay team, an event they were favored in.

Collett explained in 1992 his actions in 1972 in a way that likely reflects the feelings of many athletes who are linking arms, removing themselves from the field or kneeling during the playing of the American national anthem:

I love America. I just don’t think it’s lived up to its promise. I’m not anti-American at all. To suggest otherwise is to not understand the struggles of blacks in America at the time.

Indianapolis Colts protesting
Indianapolis Colts protesting on September 24
A Teaching Moment at the Singapore Sports Museum
A Teaching Moment at the Singapore Sports Museum

Canagasabai Kunalan strolled through the Singapore Sports Museum, walking his guest through Singapore’s greatest sporting achievements, explaining the history with enthusiasm, with the skills honed over decades as a teacher.

But C. Kunalan was more than just a teacher. As we walked through the corridors, passers-by would recognize the fit, elderly gentleman as the man who held the title, Singapore’s fastest, for decades. In fact, Kunalan had held at different points the fastest marks in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 400 meters in Singapore track history.

It was 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics, when Kunalan set the Singapore record for 100 meters, a mark that stood for 33 years.

Jim Hines set the world record in the 100-meters in Mexico City with a time of 9.95, considerably faster than Kunalan’s 10.38. But when you think about it purely from a statistical perspective, Singapore had a tiny talent pool. The population of Singapore in 1968 was 2 million, only 1% of the entire US population, and roughly the same population of Hines’ state of Arkansas that year.

C Kunalan in Mexico City_2
Kunalan finishing third (719) in a 100-meter heat to advance. Eventual gold winner Jim Hines strolls into the finish.

Kunalan defied the odds, advancing beyond the first round at the Mexico City Games to be recognized as one of the top 32 fastest men in the world. And if you know the history of Southeast Asia in the 1960s, you know that in 1968, Singapore was only in its third year as a sovereign nation. It wasn’t clear until the last days before departing Singapore whether Kunalan had the funds to even travel to Mexico.

In the end, Kunalan made it to Mexico City, and he was there to compete. But he knew, as a sprinter, he and his teammates were significantly behind those in the advanced industrial economies, or in the nations under the flag or influence of the Soviet Union. In his biography, C. Kunalan – Singapore’s Greatest Track and Field Athlete, written by Steven Quek, a one-time colleague of his in the National Institute of Education, Quek explains how support and role modeling by others contributed to his development.

At the Mexico City Olympics Kunalan recalled simple but powerful gestures: USA Assistant Track Coach Stan Wright offering Kunalan the use of Team USA’s masseurs for a pre-competition rub down, or Bahaman sprinter Tom Robinson coming up to Kunalan to suggest that the Singaporean be aware that he was exerting too much effort into the first 20 meters of his sprint, when he should in fact be conscious of staying relaxed. “Tom, a world-class athlete, was willingly sharing advice with an unknown from Asia. Kunalan never forgot this.”

After Kunalan’s competitions ended, he was then able to watch the very best athletes in the world demonstrate the highest levels of physical achievement:

Ever the teacher, Kunalan understood that for Singapore athletes to succeed internationally, to reach the world-class levels on display at the Olympics, their training must improve, as he explained in a letter to his wife:

We must get very serious about training. There are about 6 short men all doing 10 or 10.1. Why? Arms and legs big!! Mine only 1/2. You know darling! If I can get their strength, I will be doing 10 sec too.

C Kunalan in Mexico City_1
C, Kunalan in Mexico City

Kunalan would retire from track in 1970, but would go on to become one of Singapore’s most successful primary and secondary school teachers, twice being recognized as “Teacher of the Year”. He currently works for the Singapore Sports Council, in offices near the Singapore Sports Museum.

Maybe you’ll be lucky to see him there, get a tour like I did, and learn from a man who has literally lived the history of Singapore sports.

Mel Pender_100 meter_1968
Mel Pender starting strong in 100-meter finals at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics_from the collection of Mel Pender

I cannot explain why I came in sixth place in the 1968 Olympics when the 100 meters was my best event. I could have won that race, and thought I should have. My start was great! I was out in front, but it was like I lost all my momentum and fell way behind.

So wrote Mel Pender in regards to his 100-meter finals at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, as described in his autobiography, Expression of Hope – The Mel Pender Story. In fact, 1968 was in one respect a repeat of 1964 – a sixth place finish in the 100-meter finals. As Pender is painfully aware, there is no acclaim for the Sixth Fastest Man in the World.

But one significant difference between 1968 and 1964 was that at the Tokyo Olympics, Pender was running with a torn muscle in his ribcage, and was hospitalized after the individual 100 meters. In 1968, Pender had one more chance for a medal, as a member of the 4×100 meter relay team. And yet, while he was officially penciled in as the runner of the second leg, there was talk not only of replacing the injured lead-off man, Charlie Greene, but also Pender because of his age and his sixth-place finish in the individual finals.

Ronnie Ray Smith, Mel Pender, Charlie Greene, Jimmy Hines
Ronnie Ray Smith, Mel Pender, Charlie Greene, Jimmy Hines

And then there was the tension of race on Team USA. On October 16, Tommie Smith and John Carlos took first and third place in the 200-meter finals, and more famously, bowed their heads and lifted their fists in protest on the medal stand as the American anthem played. Their silent plea for equality and justice for Blacks in America created in an uproar in Mexico City and around the world. The IOC president, Avery Brundage, banned Smith and Carlos from the Olympic Village, and thus the Games.

As Pender recalled in his autobiography, Brundage “referred to black male athletes as boys. ‘If those boys act up, I’m going to send them home…’ was what he said publicly and privately. When the black athletes heard about this, it was more than we could stand. Remember, in April of 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Tennessee.”

Members of the US track team, particularly black athletes, with the support of their head coach, Stan Wright, protested Brundage’s decision. But Pender, and other members of the US military had an extra burden, told in no uncertain terms that they “could not be part of the demonstrations based on the oath of service we took.”

Ronnie Ray Smith, Mel Pender, Charlie Greene, Jimmy Hines_2

So, for Pender, Mexico City was not just a sports event, and the 4×100 meter relay was not just a race. It was to Pender, perhaps, an expression of hope, an opportunity to shine a spotlight of achievement for black Americans, and a shot at redemption for the five-foot-five man from Lynnwood Park. The 4×100 relay, an event of immense speed that requires split-second precision in the baton hand offs, was America’s to win or lose.

I took my position on the oval track, awaiting the baton from leadoff man Charlie Greene. Charley ran the first leg, and when he handed the baton to me, we were trailing a bit. Passing the baton was clean. I was in a good Lane; I think was the third lane. It was without those curves that you made you feel like you’re running sideways. I ran the second leg, which proved to be the fastest of the four, and gave our team the lead. When I pass the baton to Ronnie Ray, he did his job, and we maintained the lead. When Ronnie Ray handed off the baton, Jim Hines brought it home.

Greene, Pender, Ray and Hines set a new world record of 38.24 seconds.

 

collett-and-matthews-1972-munich-olympics
Wayne Collett (left) and Vince Matthews (Associated Press/File 1972)

They stood there casually, one barefoot, hands on hips, the other in thoughtful repose, right hand stroking the chin. You would think they were waiting for the bus.

But Wayne Collett and Vince Matthews were actually standing on the winners podium at the 1972 Munich Olympics, their medals for their silver and gold medal finishes in the 400 meter sprint around their necks, and the American national anthem playing.

Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee, viewed the behavior of Collett and Matthews as abhorrent and immediately banned them from the Olympic Games. This may have seemed like déjà vu to Brundage as he had made the same decision four years earlier in Mexico City, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos accepted their medals after the 200 meter finals, and raised their black-gloved fists into the air, reflecting their anger at the state of race relations in America.

The day after Brundage’s decision to kick Collett and Matthews out of the Munich Olympic Village, a white bed sheet was suspended from the windows of the American team’s dormitory. According to Ollan Cassell in his book Inside the Five Ring Circus, the bed sheet read, “Down with Brundage”. Cassell reveals that the person who dropped this flag of protest was Vince Matthews.

The head coach of the US track team at the 1972 Munich Olympics was Bill Bowerman, the legendary coach at the University of Oregon. With Smith injured and Collett and Matthews suspended, he knew he would not be able to field a 4X400 relay team. Clearly the men would have been a near-lock for gold if not for the suspensions. According to Kenny Moore’s book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, Bowerman was upset with the behavior of Collett and Matthews, but he did not believe they deserved to be suspended.

“Matthews and Collett made asses of themselves,” as Bill would put it, “jiving around and talking, giving the impression they didn’t want to be ramrod straight. That was unfortunate but no big deal. I felt they hadn’t meant to be disrespectful during the anthem. Jesse Owens talked with them afterward and felt the same. He was arranging for them to apologize, but before they could, Brundage had Matthews and Collett suspended and sent from the Village.”

“You cannot expect on an Olympic squad of sixty to have everybody act like army privates,” Bill said later. “They’re great athletes. They’re great individuals. The fact that some of them did things that the press objected to didn’t bother me too much. They’re vivid, alive, human animals. They’re keenly interested, very competitive, and all different. So why not accept that and enjoy it?”

bill-bowerman-at-heyward-field-in-oregon
Bill Bowerman at Hayward Field in Oregon

So Bowerman said he would talk to Brundage the next day and see if an apology might convince Brundage to change his mind. Bowerman did meet with Brundage, and despite the fact that Palestinian terrorists had just broken into the Olympic Village and taken Israeli athletes hostages, Bowerman and Brundage were able to manage a discussion on Collett and Matthews. And as related in Bowerman’s biography, Brundage accepted Bowerman’s apology on behalf of his athletes and accepted their reinstatement on condition that the USOC agreed.

Bowerman, and his partner in this negotiation, Jesse Owens, rushed to a gathering of USOC members to tell them the wonderful news, that Brundage had actually reversed his decision and that all they needed was USOC’s endorsement. But Bowerman was surprised to learn that more than the IOC, the USOC was even more outraged, and had already voted to support Brundage’s original decision to kick Collett and Matthews out of the Olympics. According to the Bowerman bio, the presiding officer of the USOC, Clifford Buck gave as rationale, “Well, they insulted the American flag.”

And so, Collett and Matthews were suspended and the heavily favored 4X400 relay team never made it on the track.

Years later in 1992, Collett told the Los Angeles Times the following:

“I love America. I just don’t think it’s lived up to its promise. I’m not anti-American at all. To suggest otherwise is to not understand the struggles of blacks in America at the time.’’

David Wottle on Winners Podium
02 Sep 1972, Munich, Germany — Hand over heart, America;s David Wottle stands on winner’s podium after receiving the Gold Medal in the Olympic men’s 800 meter race here today 9/2, with Soviet Silver Medal winner Evgeni Arzhanov in front of him, and Mike Boit (left) of Kenya, the Bronze medalist, behind. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
You couldn’t miss him. In the finals of the 800 meter race at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, he was the only one wearing a cap. And he was all the way in the back of the pack.

But Dave Wottle did not remain in the back. The Kenyans were setting the pace. Then the Soviet star, Yevgeniy Arzhanov, took the lead with two hundred meters to go, and Wottle of Bowling Green State University is in fifth at the beginning of his kick. As the American broadcasters shout excitedly in this particularly partisan call, Wottle passes one runner after another until nipping the Soviet at the tape to win gold.

Most athletes would bask in the warmth of victory – either jumping in jubilation, or smiling endlessly with a quiet sense of accomplishment. Instead, Wottle wore an expressionless mask, perhaps one of shock. And when he stepped up to the winner’s podium, he made a mistake in etiquette that ruined this championship moment for him.

As the American national anthem played, Wottle forgot to remove his cap. And as he mentioned in this profile in the book, Tales of Gold, “I suppose what most people will remember about me as an Olympic athlete is that I was the one who wore a golf cap while running and also that I forgot to take it off on the victory stand. That episode just dampened my whole Olympic experience. I was never so embarrassed in my life! It should have been the happiest day but it wasn’t; I was simply too embarrassed to be totally happy.”

It was 1972, four years removed from the black-fisted protests of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal podium in Mexico City, a time when the US was stuck in the quagmire of the Vietnam War, and only a few days before Palestinian terrorists broke into the Olympic Village, taking the Israeli team hostage, and eventually killing them. When people saw Wottle with his white cap on, and his right hand on his left breast, covering the USA patch, they may have wondered what he was protesting. The Vietnam War perhaps?

Wottle was mortified. He said he had absolutely no ill will in wearing the hat, that he simply forgot to take it off.

As Milton Richman wrote in the State Journal-Register, a local Springfield, Illinois newspaper, “The cap sells for 75 cents. You can get it for 35 cents wholesale. Dave Wottle wears it practically everywhere. He wears it when he runs. He wears it when he trains. He

mal whitfield obit-1-master675
Mal Whitfield after winning the 800-meter event at the 1948 London Games. Credit Central Press/Hilton Archive, via Getty Images.

   

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.”

 

Ebony Magazine_Mal Whitfield
From the March 1964 Ebony Magazine

 

“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