As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the seminal moment of the Mexico City Games, when Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised a black-gloved fist from the medals podium, GlobalSport Matters looks back at the year from a global sporting perspective. From the World Series helping a wounded Detroit heal to athletic innovations that trace their origins to those Olympics, 1968 served as a critical pivot point in the role sports plays in society and introduced the modern era of athlete activism. To see all of our stories, please click here.
The 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics are known for the protests against racial segregation, but that protest wasn’t limited to the United States. It was an issue felt globally. As a result, countries joined to ban South Africa from the games because of apartheid.
South Africa was initially banned from the 1964 Tokyo Games, but the nation’s status was reviewed at the urging of Avery Brundage, who was the president of the International Olympic Committee during that era. The ban demonstrated the Olympic movement’s strong disapproval of apartheid, the institutionalized system of racial segregation.
South Africa implemented the apartheid policy in 1948 as it was emerging from under British rule. South Africa was separated into four racial groups: whites, blacks, coloreds and Indians. Dr. Gustav Venter, research coordinator for the Center for Human Performance Sciences in South Africa at Stellenbosch University, said the country was trying to appeal to an international audience by broadening the racial groups from just white versus black.
So as the Mexico City Games neared, the policy had been in place for nearly 20 years.
However, the late 1960s marked the first time South Africa tried to address the issue through its national sport policy. In 1967, the South African government introduced a “New Sports Policy,” which was publicly touted as an attempt to diversify its international athletics. Pressed by many suspicious nations, the IOC investigated the new policy. It turned out the Olympic trials for South African teams were far from equal. Groups were separated by race, and the best from each group would qualify for the mixed-race team.
“(Olympic Project for Human Rights) joined with a number of other organizations worldwide to put enough pressure on the IOC to reject Brundage’s attempt and successfully keep apartheid South Africa out of the 1968 games,” said Dr. Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and an Arizona State University lecturer in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.
Brundage was an important figure within the South Africa controversy and in the Olympic Games dating to the pre-World War II years. In 1936, Brundage, then the president of the United States Olympic Committee, made no objection to German athletes making the Nazi salute when being awarded their medals.
“He was a supporter of apartheid. He was actually a Nazi supporter, too, in terms of he had made business contracts with Nazis regarding construction projects and that sort of thing,” said Kenneth Shropshire, CEO of the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University. “It’s difficult to describe somebody as such, but by all accounts he was a racist as well.”
The IOC’s Fundamental Principles state that “no discrimination is allowed against a country or person on grounds of race, religion or political affiliation.” That didn’t stop Brundage. He had a trail of racist and anti-Semitic remarks his whole life coming from letters to friends and public speeches. He referred to Harry Edwards, a California sociologist in support of the 1968 boycott, as “an unknown negro agitator.” By the time the ‘68 Olympics came around, he was one of the only supporters for South Africa to be allowed back into the games.
[beauty_quote quote='“(Olympic Project for Human Rights) joined with a number of other organizations worldwide to put enough pressure on the IOC to reject Brundage’s attempt and successfully keep apartheid South Africa out of the 1968 games.” - Arizona State University sports historian Dr. Victoria Jackson']
The 1968 ban of South Africa had a lot to do with the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa and the South African Council on Sport, which initiated many of the boycotts. SCSA consisted of 32 countries in Africa along with a handful of countries from the Middle East. The body unanimously decided apartheid could not be overlooked and the country operating it should be disqualified. There were a number of American athletes who joined the boycotts, but the country as a whole stayed quiet.
“The United States, certainly through the Reagan administration, were supporters of South Africa,” Shropshire said. “I don’t know if it’s lack of understanding on the human rights issues, but certainly it was a huge political issue.”
In 1971 South Africa changed its “New Sports Policy” to a concept called multinationalism. Though it sported a new name, the idea was the same: four separate racial groups divided by whites, blacks, coloreds and Indians. The policy stated the four racially segregated teams can compete in the same events, but only against international opponents. Most likely the competitions consisted of independent events like track and field. Multinationalism was able to give an illusion of going toward equality, but the government was still able to keep different races apart.
“The national party was afraid to lose the trust of the voters,” Venter said. “They didn’t want people to wonder if they were throwing them into full integration. They would tell them we’re only integrating in some areas.”
The first South African Games, a spin off of the Olympics, were held in 1973. The country paid for international athletes to go to Pretoria and compete. Some countries, such as Brazil, left early after witnessing that hardline segregation that was still in effect.
South Africa responded by tweaking their latest sport policy. The government allowed the racially divided teams to compete against each other, and South Africans saw it as a form of integration.
“The multinationalism policy was supposed to bring them back into international sport and then they started to expand it and let it integrate and allow the teams to play each other,” Venter said. “They never officially made mixed sport illegal. The reason you couldn’t play mixed sport in South Africa was the general apartheid legislation in society. For example, the facilities - there was a separate facilities act where racial groups had to use the different facilities. In a sport context, that is very impractical.”
A few fortunate athletes were able to escape the politics and continue their careers. Venter said white athletes with access to resources had a better chance to play internationally and possibly change their citizenship. Gary Player is considered one of the best golfers of all time. He was able to continue playing despite being met with protests. Long-distance runner Zola Budd became a citizen of Great Britain and ran under that flag in the 1984 Games. Team athletes had a more difficult time pursuing their sport.
It required three decades for South Africa to be accepted back into the games. They participate under a neutral white flag depicting the Olympic rings and the country’s colors during the 1992 games. That year apartheid was abolished. In 1996, two years after Nelson Mandela became president, South Africa entered the Olympic stage under its own flag for the first time since 1960.
Nikole Tower is a senior journalism student at Arizona State University