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.”

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Tlatelolco Massacre 1
The violent suppression of anti-government protests only 10 days before the start of the Mexico City Olympic Games.
It was 48 years ago when the Olympic Games were last held in Latin America. And like the upcoming Rio Olympics, political unrest served as an overture to the opera that was the Mexico City Olympics.

The Rio Games commence in only a little more than 2 months from now. President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, is in the midst of impeachment proceedings, which has sparked protests both for and against the embattled leader. However, protests against the government appear to be far greater than those supporting the government.

As the New York Times recently put it, “more demonstrators have hit the Brazilians streets than the rest of the world combined.” And the Olympics are the spark:

The Olympics will provide activists of all political stripes with another prime opportunity to voice their grievances, but this time beneath the hot glare of the global media spotlight. The Olympics raise a raft of reasons to dissent: displacement (some 77,000 people and counting), militarization of public space (85,000 security officials will flood Rio, more than double the number in London), flawed spending priorities (billions spent on Olympics while hospitals are shuttered).

So far, thankfully, little violence has come of the protests in Rio de Janeiro. But in the summer of 1968, protests against the Mexico government were considered such a threat that the President decided to end it, or face the humiliation of open government opposition at a time when the international community was expecting a stable, united and enthusiastically positive Mexico. But in actuality, Mexico City was a few sparks away from a conflagration.

President Gustavo Ordaz
Then President of Mexico Gustavo Diaz Ordaz

The first spark was on July 22, when rival student gangs in competing vocational schools got into a rumble that resulted in riots. The government shut down the riots when police invaded one of the vocational schools, assaulting students and teachers alike, somewhat indiscriminately. The attack by the police on the vocational students led to a growing solidarity of a large number of students in Mexico City. This student movement gained momentum as they raised money, distributed leaflets and held demonstrations in protest of Mexico’s President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz.

On August 1, the rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Barros Sierra, led a peaceful demonstration of 50,000 students against what were thought of as repressive actions by the government. After weeks of continued protests, the Mexican Army took over the UNAM campus – the second spark. Rector Sierra resigned on September 23, only 19 days before the start of the Mexico City Games.

The third spark came on October 2, 10 days before the world would focus its attention on the release of thousands of doves, representing peace, and the march of over 5,500 athletes from 112 nations coming together with a promise to compete as members of a united humanity. Only fifteen miles from the Olympic Village, around 10,000 university and high school students gathered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas to listen to anti-government speeches, and to protest. President Ordaz had had enough.

At 5pm that day, the Plaza was encircled by tanks on the ground, and covered in the air by helicopters. When the helicopters sent flares into the sky, undercover troops called the Battalion Olympia, who were identifiable to the Army by the single white glove they wore, swept through the crowd. Shots rang out and people collapsed.

Tlatelolco Massacre 2

Richard Hoffer wrote about what later became known as the Tlatelolco Massacre, in his book, Something in the Air: American Passion and Defiance in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Hoffer explained that the CIA’s Mexico City station chief was relaying to Washington DC what his contacts in the Mexico government were telling him – that “the first shots were fired by the students”, and that “this was a premeditated encounter