KINGSTON, R.I., June 1, 2015 – It was an unforgettable moment in Olympic history: two American black sprinters stood atop the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City with their heads bowed and fists raised during the playing of the national anthem.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos were protesting to bring attention to inequality in America, even wearing no shoes and black socks to symbolize poverty. The salute drew a mixed response; some Americans were outraged, others praised them for their courage.
Robert G. Weisbord, professor emeritus of history at the University of Rhode Island, explores that protest and other racial issues involving the Olympics through the years in his latest book, “Racism and the Olympics.”
A URI professor for 46 years, retiring in 2013, Weisbord, is the author of six other books and many articles on black Americans, African history and Jewish history, including the Holocaust.
URI’s Marketing and Communications Office talked to Weisbord, 81, who lives a few minutes from the Kingston campus, about his new book, the Nazi games of 1936, the expulsion of Rhodesia and South Africa from the Olympics and the FIFA bribery scandal, the latest controversy to rock the sports world.
Congratulations on your new book. What inspired you to write it? Are you a big sports fan?
Yes, I’m a huge sports fan. I was a mediocre athlete growing up in Washington Heights in New York City, but as a spectator I’m a fan of baseball, basketball and football. More important, I’m interested in racism, and that includes racism in sports. My books all deal with discrimination in one form or another.
The black power salute in the 1968 Olympics shocked America. What do you think of the protest? Did you support it?
I supported it, yes. It was a dignified and brief protest that in no way was disruptive of the games. It was a way of saying that blacks were oppressed in America and that something had to be done about it. As part of a movement the protest brought about some change – for the better. Americans’ outrage was hypocritical. After George Foreman won the gold medal he ran around the ring carrying a small American flag, and there were no protests of that demonstration. To be consistent, one has to be critical of all demonstrations at the Olympics, not simply those that seem unfavorable to the United States.
What happened to the athletes – Tommie Smith and John Carlos?
They were given a very hard time. The controversy had a negative effect on their marriages, and they found it very difficult to get gainful employment. Tommie Smith was reduced to washing cars. Both are still alive. I don’t think the relationship between them is very good.
Hitler’s snub of track star Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin was disgusting. Could something that horrible happen today at the games?
No. That’s not possible. There’s more awareness of racial sensitivities. Back then, Hitler made it clear that he didn’t like black athletes winning medals for the United States.
In your book you write about the polarizing presidency of Avery Brundage, who served on the International Olympic Committee until 1972. Did his reign almost destroy the Olympic spirit?
He was a negative force in the Olympics. He was overly combative and conservative on a number of issues, not just race. He was an insensitive man. His attitudes were old-fashioned and objectionable. He was unsympathetic to the plight of black athletes and citizens. He stayed too long, yet he remains the single most dominant personality in the Olympic movement in the 20th century.
Is there racism in the Olympics today?
No. The kinds of problems the games have today are not connected to racism. Now the issues are of a different nature, including the role of gay athletes and women participants, especially from the Middle East, where there are more restrictions for women.
What criteria should be used to determine whether a country participates in the games?
The Olympic community should strive for universal participation, but there should be stringent requirements for hosting the games. If you have a country that is guilty of flagrant wrongdoing, then I wouldn’t let it host the games, which is an honor. In the worst cases, I wouldn’t let a country participate in the Olympics either. That’s why I supported banning South Africa and Rhodesia in the 1960s and 1970s.
What do you think of the FIFA scandal tarnishing soccer? Are professional sports too greedy today?
I think an attempt should be made to eliminate greed as much as possible. Everything has to be transparent. That’s crucial.
One last question: Are you enjoying your retirement?
Sure. I love it, but I miss the teaching to tell you the truth. I miss the students. I had a grand time at URI.
Pictured above: Robert G. Weisbord, 81, professor emeritus of history at the University of Rhode Island and author of the new book, “Racism and the Olympics.” Photo by Nora Lewis.