the baggy trousered misanthropist

missives issued from the lair

Tommie Smith, Peter Norman and John Carlos on the podium at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Images via tumblr, AP Photo/Michael Probst.

In an age when offending advertisers’ sensibilities by revealing a pair of unauthorised pants is considered the one of the most provocative and controversial acts a sportsperson can undertake, the magnitude of gestures like that in this iconic photo (top) can be lost.

In a recent interview, Tommie Smith (c) was asked what was going through his mind as he raised his fist in a silent protest against racial discrimination in the USA at the time. He replied:

I was waiting for a gunshot. We had received threats long before we raced in Mexico and I was holding my hand over my face to protect my head from a bullet. Saying that, I don’t think the bullet would have respected my hand very much. After the silence came the boos and insults. I didn’t speak to anyone after that as we were told to leave.

His team mate, John Carlos (r), said:

I wanted to make sure, in case someone rushed us, I could throw down a hammer punch… You could have heard a frog piss on cotton. There’s something awful about hearing 50,000 people go silent, like being in the eye of a hurricane.

Forty four years on, while we’re all preparing to watch Usain Bolt defend his Olympic Gold medals in London, it might be as well to take a moment to remember what these guys put on the line to draw the world’s attention to the American Civil Rights Movement.

The starting pistol is the only gunfire between Bolt and his destiny. We might not be there yet, in terms of equal rights, but things are a darn sight better than they were, and Smith, Carlos and Norman played a huge part in moving things forward.

I never thought I’d say this, but I suddenly feel so grateful that I share an era with Nicklas Bendtner and his Paddy Power pants.

The story behind this photo, and the impact the gesture had on the lives of the people involved, including that of Australian Peter Norman (l), who was deselected from the Australian Olympic team for supporting the protest, is told in a new docudrama entitled ‘Salute’. It’s directed by Norman’s nephew Matt and is out Friday

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