Running the race: Justice and the Olympic Protest

February 16, 2018


The 2018 Winter Olympics is hosted by South Korea this year but there will be no South Korean team at the opening ceremony. Athletes from the host nation will instead march alongside 22 athletes from North Korea as part of a unified Korean team.

The symbolism of this is significant given the Games will be held in PyeongChang, which is 80 km south of the heavily fortified border that separates it from North Korea. The international multi-sport event will take place with an impoverished dictatorship on the horizon, and a unified Korean team entering the stadium is a reminder that the Games aren’t just sporting entertainment, they are also politically symbolic.

Spectators don’t just watch the Olympic Games for athletic competition, but also for the idealised picture of world politics that they can present; people groups united and equal in competition. Olympic events have been used to confront racial discrimination and injustice in the past. Adolf Hitler only allowed athletes of other ethnicities to participate in Berlin’s 1936 Summer Olympics once other countries threatened to boycott. South Africa, which did not allow its own black and white athletes to compete together, was suspended from the 1964 Summer Olympics as a result of apartheid.

But, while the Olympic Games can be constructive in symbolising unity and justice, their capacity to do more is limited. Athletes from North and South Korea can compete as a unified team, but one that still consists of a divided people. Some Korean athletes will return to an advanced urban nation and the others to a sabre-rattling dictatorship. 


Platform for protest 

Platforms like the Olympic Games are helpful for modelling symbolic unity, but are racial discrimination and injustice any different once the medals are handed out?

This year’s Winter Olympics marks the 50th anniversary of the Olympics Human Rights Salute, which has come to be seen as the most political moment in the event’s history. The protest was staged by African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos as they were presented with their medals for the 200 metres final in 1968 (see photo).

Smith won the gold, Australian athlete Peter Norman won silver, and Carlos won bronze. Once the athletes were presented with their medals, Smith and Carlos raised black-gloved fists as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was played. While the raised fists were first seen as a Black Power salute, the athletes later clarified that it was, in fact, a human rights salute. 

The meaning of their protest went even further; Smith and Carlos stood shoeless to represent the poverty of the African-American people. Smith wore a black scarf to represent black pride and Carlos had his tracksuit top open to represent blue-collar workers. The bowed heads were in imitation of prayer. Each of the athletes, including the Australian, Norman, wore the badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

The athletes were reprimanded for the controversial protest. It was the height of the civil rights era in the US and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr had been assassinated just nine months previously. Smith and Carlos received death threats and were put under surveillance by the FBI. That image of the three athletes—one of the iconographic images of 20th century sport—demonstrates that the Olympic Games aren’t just limited to symbolic gestures, but can also be a platform for protest.


The Cost of Protest

Symbolic gestures of unity are easy—they rarely offend anyone—but protest is costly, as it confronts the discrimination and injustice in our midst. The protest was costly for Norman as well. As the three athletes prepared for the medal ceremony, Smith had asked Norman if he believed in human rights and God. Norman replied that he did, having attended a Salvation Army church while growing up in Melbourne. 

Faith had been an important part of Norman’s life and the young athlete sometimes competed with ‘God is love’ sewn into his tracksuit. Because of this faith, Norman decided to partner in protest with Smith and Carlos and wear the human rights badge. Norman was officially cautioned as a result and his decision to stand against racial discrimination and injustice meant that he never ran in the Olympic Games again. 

Platforms like the Olympic Games are helpful for modelling symbolic unity, but are racial discrimination and injustice any different once the medals are handed out?


Eyes on the Prize

Christian faith and values had helped drive the Civil Rights movement that Smith, Carlos and Norman represented, as it had also done for the Abolitionists who fought to end slavery in the British Empire a century earlier. Given their faith, there is one passage of Scripture that can’t have been too far from the imaginations of those three athletes as they ran 50 years ago:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honour beside God’s throne” (Hebrews 12:1–2).

This exhortation isn’t just relevant for its athletic metaphor, but also as a challenge to persevere, no matter the cost and criticism. Smith, Carlos and Norman didn’t just run an athletics race, but also strived to confront the racial discrimination and injustice they saw. They went beyond the symbolic gesture and protested, enduring persecution as a result.


Beyond symbolic gestures

Their story can be an example for this nation. This is particularly true of Norman, who had been well aware of the White Australia Policy back home. Today, the Closing the Gap campaign has struggled to reduce Indigenous disadvantage and it has been reported that 58% of Indigenous Australians are at risk of poverty. Violence has broken out at Nationalist rallies across Australia in recent years and these scenes have been reminiscent of the Cronulla riots in 2005. There is a long way to go before true equality and justice are achieved in this country.

Once the medals are handed out and the Olympic Games have ended this year, racial discrimination and injustice will remain unchanged. The symbolism of sporting events can be constructive, but it is also an opportunity to remember the need to go beyond symbolic gestures. Achieving equality and justice is a race we must all run, looking to those witnesses who have set an example for us, and enduring the consequences of speaking out against injustice—no matter the cost and criticism.


Tags: Salvation Army Australia

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