There are beautiful sports photos, and dramatic sports photos. There are sports photos that are funny, and others that are poignant. There are photos that capture athletic brilliance, and tenacity, and passion. But there are few images from the modern history of sports that have transcended the games, photos that have inspired and provoked those with little interest in athletics. Perhaps the only image to have had such a far-reaching effect is that of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
But some would object—and many did in 1968—that what Smith and Carlos did on the medal stand after the 200-meter finals was not a sports moment. It was a political moment, a protest, and therefore it was outside the boundary of athletics. Smith and Carlos had violated a fundamental principle of sport by mixing it with politics. But those who made that criticism in 1968 likely did not denounce George Foreman ten days later, when he waved the American flag in the ring after winning the boxing gold medal. Likewise, fans who objected to NBA player Steve Nash’s criticism of Arizona’s law on illegal immigrants likely did not oppose the prominent military presence in NFL commemorations of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or the contributions that sports owners make to political parties and candidates. As sports journalist Dave Zirin notes in our interview, politics are always present in sports. People get upset, though, when their sports are mixed with somebody else’s politics. And in 1968—and the years that followed—people were furious with the politics of Smith and Carlos.
Dave Zirin has written a number of books on sports in U.S. history and contemporary society, and he comments regularly on sports and politics for The Nation and the weekly Sirius XM program, Edge of Sports Radio. As co-author of The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World (Haymarket Books, 2011), he helps tell the story of an extraordinary athlete and activist. In the interview, we talk of Carlos’ youth in Harlem, the events that led him and teammate Tommie Smith to make their shocking protest, and the burdens that Carlos endured after 1968. And we talk about the hard work of telling another man’s life, of trying to convey not only his experiences but also his motivations, his commitments, and the way he understands the legacy of one transcendent act.