One of the most iconic moments from the history of the Olympic games is the shot of John Carlos and Tommie Smith giving the Black Panther salute at the 1968 games in Mexico City on the winner’s podium. It has consistently featured as a visual cue used in every Olympics montage to reinforce the social and political importance that the games attain to. Commentators are forever explaining the geopolitical cohesion that the games inherently provides by bringing together nations, using soft power that is more effective than diplomacy.
The moment is remembered not for its arrogance or selfishness, but as a brave symbol of solidarity at a dangerous time during the civil rights movement. The two athletes clearly were not concerned about how their hosts would react to the gesture, and they presumably did not let their political sign get in the way of their performance (they got gold and silver respectively).
Why then did the athletes at this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi not stage any kind of protest against the contemporary inequalities surrounding them? If one of the unwritten functions of the games is to create a ‘legacy’ instead of simply a spectacle, then it would have been the perfect arena to stage a debate about equality and human rights.
In the last few years, Russia’s lower house of Parliament (Duma) has instated two new worrying laws: the first imposed heavy fines for anyone providing ‘information about homosexuality to under-18s’, with fines for up to 5,000 (Roubles) for individuals and 500,000 for schools or businesses; and the second law declared it an offence to ‘offend religious feelings of the faithful’ that came with a three-year prison sentence. This is coincidentally similar to the jail sentence for the Pussy Riot feminists…
Homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in 1993, but in 2010 Moscow upheld a ban on gay pride marches that is protected for a century. These mixed signals are a nightmare for the gay community and have lead to 21st century vigilante queer-bashing across the country.
Was it only because Carlos and Smith were African-American that they staged their Black power salute? Obviously yes. But does that mean that only someone affected by an injustice protest against it? Obviously no. It is absurd to think that only a victim of oppression has the responsibility and obligation to be vocal on the issue – where would all of the human rights movements over the last century be if all empathetic allies were removed…?
During the recently closed Sochi Olympics, there was a specially cordoned ‘protest zone’ that was a distance away from the Olympic village, but it remained embarrassingly empty throughout the event. I don’t want to seem heartless – I appreciate how hard it must be to train for an Olympic event and then keep your head focused throughout the media spectacle – but for the 2,947 athletes who took part, and the countless thousands of visiting officials and fans, it was a real shame to not see any of them make a meaningful stand against the regressive and prejudicial politics of the host country.