Closeup of John Carlos
John Carlos says today's athlete activism is also much larger than sports. (Photo by Tyler Dare/GlobalSport Matters)
Culture The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City

Olympic legend John Carlos calls athlete activism more than sports

John Carlos, dubbed “The World’s Fastest Humanitarian,” described the racial divide in the United States 50 years ago as a war.

He describes it differently in 2018.

“The country is not at war right now; it’s diseased — not just in America, but in the world — and the disease is called racism,” Carlos said.

In the 1968 Olympics, Tommie Smith and Carlos won the gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the men’s 200-meters final of the Mexico City Games. On the podium, they raised their fists in the black power salute as the American national anthem played.

The moment has remained one of the most iconic in the history of athlete activism.

“What we were fighting for is a lot more than the Olympic Games and sports, but sports can be a platform,” Carlos said.

As a consequence of their actions, both were banned from Olympic competition for the United States team and sent straight home. That home was not accepting of them before the games, and that hostility rose to another level when they returned. Carlos did not fear the possibility of being killed though.

“I had no fear of dying because I was born dead as a black man in America,” Carlos said. “You can only die once, and we are all gonna die.”

Carlos described losing his wife, his difficulty finding a job and the struggles his children endured in the wake of the protest. Yet he knew his country needed a change.

Carlos is originally from New York but attended school in Texas. He described his first experience in the Jim Crow South as seeing the bathrooms labeled whites and colored. He described the whites-only bathroom as being so clean he could cook eggs on it, while the colored bathroom was dirty, with paper and gnats everywhere.

“There is no neutrality in war,” Carlos said. “Either you are with something or against something; you can't ride the fence.”

Carlos knew which side he would be outspoken about early, growing up with few black role models in powerful positions. He wanted to be that for future generations.

“I began to look at society and tried to find someone who was successful; we never saw those individuals,” Carlos said.

Carlos said he was inspired by Jack Johnson and Jackie Robinson to fight for what was right and to become a symbol for those who are discriminated against. He said former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick is going through that situation right now. Carlos said he speaks with Kaepernick frequently and considers him a friend.

“He’s my hero, there are no ifs, ands and buts about it. Anytime you see a man that steps up against all odds and says it’s not about me, it’s about something bigger than me, and I choose to sacrifice myself for this bigger issue. I can do nothing but respect him as an individual. I said to him the first time we met that he was my hero, and it will stand till the end of time,” Carlos said.

Many have brought up that Kaepernick is a rich NFL player, and they claim he doesn’t experience oppression on a regular basis, something Carlos refutes.

“Money can make it better, but being classified as a hood rat is based on the color of your skin,” Carlos said. “I was concerned about what’s right and what’s wrong, not what’s right or wrong for me. Mr. Kaepernick is thinking the same thing, someone had to step up to the plate.”

Carlos is there to help Kaepernick and do anything he can to provide support.

“We talk pretty regularly just to make sure he is secure and to see if he needs someone to lean on and talk to, give him encouragement and make sure he is going in the right direction,” Carlos said. “This is his play; I’m just the assist man when he needs me for support or backup in any sense in any way I can lend support.”

Carlos believes education is a major issue when it comes to the racial divide in the country.

“We never take time to teach kids about various cultures; we never take time to teach kids about love; we never take time to teach kids about respect and honor,” Carlos said.

Carlos also spoke on Nike’s current campaign that features Kaepernick and what that means to him.

“The Nike people have vision today,” Carlos said. “They gave Kaepernick the commercial mainly because it was the right thing to do.”

Carlos implores people on a regular basis to stand up for what they believe in and that is the only way to achieve true change.

“Any individual heroes who you feel may have made a statement for society, don’t applaud them but step back and question yourself and what you are doing, because those individuals would like to stand up and applaud for you” Carlos said. “So get up off your fannies and start trying to make this place a better world for you and your children.”

Max Bechtoldt is a senior journalism student at Arizona State University