1968  Mexico City Summer Olympics

1968 Summer Olympics - Controversies

1968 Summer Olympics - Controversies

1968 Olympics Black Power salute

During their medal ceremony in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City on October 16, 1968, African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the US national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner". While on the podium, Smith and Carlos, who had won gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200-meter running event of the 1968 Summer Olympics, turned to face the US flag and then kept their hands raised until the anthem had finished. In addition, Smith, Carlos, and Australian silver medalist Peter Norman all wore human-rights badges on their jackets.

In his autobiography, Silent Gesture, Smith stated that the gesture was not a "Black Power" salute but rather a "human rights" salute. The demonstration is regarded as one of the most overtly political statements in the history of the modern Olympics

File:John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Peter Norman 1968cr.jpg

Gold medalist Tommie Smith (center) and

bronze medalist John Carlos (right) showing

the raised fist on the podium after the 200 m

race at the 1968 Summer Olympics; both

wear Olympic Project for Human Rights

badges. Peter Norman (silver medalist, left) from Australia also wears an OPHR badge in solidarity with Smith and Carlos.

The protest

On the morning of October 16, 1968, US athlete Tommie Smith won the 200 meter race with a world-record time of 19.83 seconds. Australia's Peter Norman finished second with a time of 20.06 seconds, and the US's John Carlos won third place with a time of 20.10 seconds. After the race was completed, the three went to the podium for their medals to be presented by David Cecil, 6th Marquess of Exeter. The two US athletes received their medals shoeless, but wearing black socks, to represent black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride, Carlos had his tracksuit top unzipped to show solidarity with all blue-collar workers in the US and wore a necklace of beads which he described "were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred." It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the Middle Passage." All three athletes wore Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges after Norman, a critic of Australia's former White Australia Policy, expressed empathy with their ideals. Sociologist Harry Edwards, the founder of the OPHR, had urged black athletes to boycott the games; reportedly, the actions of Smith and Carlos on October 16, 1968 were inspired by Edwards's arguments

The famous picture of the event was taken by photographer John Dominis.

Both US athletes intended to bring black gloves to the event, but Carlos forgot his, leaving them in the Olympic Village. It was Peter Norman who suggested Carlos wear Smith's left-handed glove. For this reason, Carlos raised his left hand as opposed to his right, differing from the traditional Black Power salute. When The Star-Spangled Banner played, Smith and Carlos delivered the salute with heads bowed, a gesture which became front-page news around the world. As they left the podium they were booed by the crowd. Smith later said, "If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight."

Tommie Smith stated in later years that "We were concerned about the lack of black assistant coaches. About how Muhammad Ali got stripped of his title. About the lack of access to good housing and our kids not being able to attend the top colleges."

International Olympic Committee response

International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Avery Brundage deemed it to be a domestic political statement unfit for the apolitical, international forum the Olympic Games were intended to be. In response to their actions, he ordered Smith and Carlos suspended from the US team and banned from the Olympic Village. When the US Olympic Committee refused, Brundage threatened to ban the entire US track team. This threat led to the expulsion of the two athletes from the Games.

A spokesman for the IOC said Smith and Carlos's actions were "a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit." Brundage, who was president of the United States Olympic Committee in 1936, had made no objections against Nazi salutes during the Berlin Olympics. He argued that the Nazi salute, being a national salute at the time, was acceptable in a competition of nations, while the athletes' salute was not of a nation and therefore unacceptable.

Brundage had been accused of being one of the United States' most prominent Nazi sympathisers even after the outbreak of the Second World War, and his removal as president of the IOC had been one of the three stated objectives of the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

In 2013, the official IOC website stated that "Over and above winning medals, the black American athletes made names for themselves by an act of racial protest."


Smith and Carlos were largely ostracized by the US sporting establishment and they were subject to criticism. Time magazine on October 25, 1968, wrote: "'Faster, Higher, Stronger' is the motto of the Olympic Games. 'Angrier, nastier, uglier' better describes the scene in Mexico City last week." Back home, both Smith and Carlos were subject to abuse and they and their families received death threats.

Smith continued in athletics, playing in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals before becoming an assistant professor of physical education at Oberlin College. In 1995, he helped coach the US team at the World Indoor Championships at Barcelona. In 1999 he was awarded the California Black Sportsman of the Millennium Award. He is now a public speaker.

Carlos' career followed a similar path. He tied the 100 yard dash world record the following year. Carlos also tried professional football, was a 15th round selection in the 1970 NFL Draft, but a knee injury curtailed his tryout with the Philadelphia Eagles. He then went on to the Canadian Football League where he played one season for the Montreal Alouettes

He fell upon hard times in the late 1970s. In 1977, his ex-wife committed suicide, leading him to a period of depression. In 1982, Carlos worked with the Organizing Committee for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. In 1985, he became a track and field coach at Palm Springs High School. As of 2012, Carlos works as a counselor at the school.

File:John Carlos, Tommie Smith 1968.jpg

John Carlos (left) and Tommie Smith (center) wearing black gloves, black socks, and no shoes at the 200 m award ceremony of the 1968 Olympics

Smith and Carlos received an Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2008 ESPY Awards honoring their action.

Norman, who was sympathetic to his competitors' protest, was criticized by conservatives in the Australian media. Julius Patching, the Australian Chef de Mission, was amused and semi-jokingly told Norman off in private with the words, "They're screaming out for your blood, so consider yourself severely reprimanded. Now, you got any tickets for the hockey today?" He was not picked for the 1972 Summer Olympics, despite having qualified 13 times over. However Australian officials say he was not picked because he came third in the Australian trials, in part due to a knee injury which severely affected his performance; that he was only cautioned after the 1968 incident, and he had been profiled "one of our finest Olympians". Norman also represented Australia at the 1970 Commonwealth Games.

When Norman died in 2006, Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral.

In 2012, Australia formally apologized to Norman, with one MP telling Parliament that Norman's gesture "was a moment of heroism and humility that advanced international awareness of racial inequality."

Wayne Collett and Vincent Matthews were banned from the Olympics after they staged a similar protest at the 1972 games in Munich.

Documentary films

The 2008 Sydney Film Festival featured a documentary about the protest entitled Salute. The film was written, directed and produced by Matt Norman, a nephew of Peter Norman.

On July 9, 2008, BBC Four broadcast a documentary, Black Power Salute, by Geoff Small, about the protest. In an article, Small noted that the athletes of the British team attending the 2008 Olympics in Beijing had been asked to sign gagging clauses which would have restricted their right to make political statements but that they had refused.


In a 2011 speech to the University of Guelph, Akaash Maharaj, a member of the Canadian Olympic Committee and head of Canada's Olympic equestrian team, said, "In that moment, Tommie Smith, Peter Norman, and John Carlos became the living embodiments of Olympic idealism. Ever since, they have been inspirations to generations of athletes like myself, who can only aspire to their example of putting principle before personal interest. It was their misfortune to be far greater human beings than the leaders of the IOC of the day."

In 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC also features a statue to honor the athletes' tribute.

San Jose

In 2005, San Jose State University honored former students Smith and Carlos with a 22-foot high statue of their protest titled Victory Salute, created by artist Rigo 23. A student, Erik Grotz, initiated the project; "One of my professors was talking about unsung heroes and he mentioned Tommie Smith and John Carlos. He said these men had done a courageous thing to advance civil rights, and, yet, they had never been honored by their own school." The statues are located in a central part of the campus at 37.335495°N 121.882556°W, next to Robert D. Clark Hall and Tower Hall.

Those who come to view the statue are allowed to participate by standing on the monument. Peter Norman is not included in the monument so viewers can be in his place; there is a plaque in the empty spot inviting those to "Take a Stand." Norman requested that his space was left empty so visitors could stand in his place and feel what he felt. The bronze figures are shoeless but there are two shoes included at the base of the monument. The right shoe, a bronze, blue Puma, is next to Carlos; while the left shoe is placed behind Smith. The signature of the artist is on the back of Smith's shoe, and the year 2005 is on Carlos's shoe.

The faces of the statues are realistic and emotional. "The statue is made of fiberglass stretched over steel supports with an exoskeleton of ceramic tiles." Rigo 23 used 3D scanning technology and computer-assisted virtual imaging to take full-body scans of the men. Their track pants and jackets are a mosaic of dark blue ceramic tiles while the stripes of the track suits are detailed in red and white.

In January 2007, History San Jose opened a new exhibit called Speed City: From Civil Rights to Black Power, covering the San Jose State athletic program "from which many student athletes became globally recognized figures as the Civil Rights and Black Power movements reshaped American society."

Sydney mural

In Australia, an airbrush mural of the trio on podium was painted in 2000 in the inner-city suburb of Newtown in Sydney. Silvio Offria, who allowed the mural to be painted on his house in Leamington Lane by an artist known only as "Donald," said that Norman, a short time before he died in 2006, came to see the mural. "He came and had his photo taken; he was very happy," he said. The monochrome tribute, captioned "THREE PROUD PEOPLE MEXICO 68," was under threat of demolition in 2010 to make way for a rail tunnel but is now listed as an item of heritage significance.

West Oakland mural

In the historically African-American neighborhood of West Oakland, California there was a large mural depicting Smith and Carlos on the corner of 12th Street and Mandela Parkway.

Above the life-sized depictions read "Born with insight, raised with a fist" (Rage Against the Machine lyrics); previously it read "It only takes a pair of gloves." In early February 2015, the mural was razed.

The private lot was once a gas station, and the mural was on the outside wall of an abandoned building or shed. The owner wanted to pay respect to the men and the moment but also wanted a mural to prevent tagging. The State was monitoring water contamination levels at this site; the testing became within normal levels "so the state ordered the removal of the tanks, testing equipment, and demolition of the shed."

Tlatelolco massacre

Following a summer of increasingly large demonstrations in Mexico City protesting the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, armed forces of Mexico opened fire October 2, 1968 on unarmed civilians, killing an undetermined number, likely in the hundreds. It occurred in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City. The events are considered part of the Mexican Dirty War, when the government used its forces to suppress political opposition. The massacre occurred 10 days before the opening of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

The head of the Federal Directorate of Security reported that 1,345 people were arrested. At the time, the government and the media in Mexico claimed that government forces had been provoked by protesters shooting at them, but government documents made public since 2000 suggest that snipers had been employed by the government. According to US national security archives, Kate Doyle, a Senior Analyst of US policy in Latin America, documented the deaths of 44 people;[3] however, estimates of the actual death toll range from 300 to 400, with eyewitnesses reporting hundreds dead.



The Mexican government invested a massive $150 million in preparation for the 1968 Olympics to be hosted in Mexico City. That amount was equal to roughly $1 billion by today's terms. Mexican President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz struggled to maintain public order during a time of rising social tensions but suppressed movements by labor unions and farmers fighting to improve their lot. His administration suppressed independent labor unions, farmers, and was heavy-handed in trying to direct the economy. In 1958 under the previous administration of Adolfo López Mateos, when Díaz Ordaz was Minister of the Interior, labor leader Demetrio Vallejo was arrested and peasant activist Rubén Jaramillo was murdered.

Arising from reaction to the government's violent repression of a July 1968 fight between rival porros (gangs), the student movement in Mexico City quickly grew to include large segments of the university students who were dissatisfied with the regime of the PRI, most especially at the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM), and the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN) as well as other universities. After a fight by rival student groups in central Mexico City was broken up violently by a large contingent of police, university students formed a National Strike Council to organize protests and present demands to the government. Large-scale protests on grew in size over the summer as the opening of the Olympic Games in mid October grew nearer. Minister of the Interior Luis Echeverría needed to keep public order. On October 2, 1968, a large peaceful march arrived at the Plaza of the Three Cultures for the usual speeches.

File:15-07-20-Plaza-de-las-tres-Culturas-RalfR-N3S 9336.jpgMemorial stele dedicated to the massacre victims at Tlatelolco.
However, the Díaz Ordaz government had had enough, and troops marched into the plaza and gunmen in surrounding buildings opened fire on the unarmed civilians in what is now known as the Tlatelolco massacre.
The year 1968 in Mexico City was a time of expansiveness and the breaking down of barriers: a time for forging alliances among students, workers, and the marginal urban poor and challenging the political regime. It was a time of great hope, seemingly on the verge of transformation. Students were out in the streets, in the plazas, on the buses, forming brigades, "going to the people." There were movement committees at each school and heady experiences of argument, exploration, and democratic practice. There was no central leader. Families were drawn in, whole apartment buildings and neighborhoods. A revolution was happening - not Che's revolution - but a revolution from within the system, nonviolent, driven by euphoria, conviction, and the excitement of experimentation on the ground.

Dissent Magazine 


On October 2, 1968, around 10,000 university and high school students gathered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas to protest the government's actions and listen peacefully to speeches. Many men and women not associated with the CNH gathered in the plaza to watch and listen; they included neighbors from the Residential complex, bystanders and children. The students had congregated outside the Chihuahua Building, a three-moduled thirteen-story apartment complex in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. Among their chants were ¡No queremos olimpiadas, queremos revolución! ("We don't want Olympics, we want revolution!"). Rally organizers did not try to call off the protest when they noticed an increased military presence in the area.

Students in a burned bus.

Two helicopters, one from the police, and another one from the army, flew over the plaza. Around 5:55 P.M. red flares were shot from the nearby S.R.E. (Mexican Ministry of Foreign Relations) tower. Around 6:15 P.M. another two flares were shot, this time from a helicopter (one was green and another one was red) as 5,000 soldiers, 200 tankettes and trucks surrounded the plaza. Much of what proceeded after the first shots were fired in the plaza remained ill-defined for decades after 1968. Records and information released by American and Mexican government sources since 2000 have enabled researchers to study the events and draw new conclusions.

The question of who fired first remained unresolved years after the massacre. The Mexican government said gunfire from the surrounding apartments prompted the army's attack. But the students said that the helicopters appeared to signal the army to fire into the crowd. Journalist Elena Poniatowska culled interviews from those present and described events in her book Massacre in Mexico: "Flares suddenly appeared in the sky overhead and everyone automatically looked up. The first shots were heard then. The crowd panicked…[and] started running in all directions." Despite CNH efforts to restore order, the crowd on the plaza quickly fell into chaos.

Shortly thereafter, the Olympia Battalion, a secret government branch made for the security of the Olympic Games composed of soldiers, police officers, and federal security agents, were ordered to arrest the leaders of the CNH and advanced into the plaza. The Olympia Battalion members wore white gloves or white handkerchiefs tied to their left hands to distinguish themselves from the civilians and prevent the soldiers from shooting them. Captain Ernesto Morales Soto stated that "immediately upon sighting a flare in the sky, the prearranged signal, we were to seal off the aforementioned two entrances and prevent anyone from entering or leaving."

The ensuing assault into the plaza left dozens dead and many more wounded in its aftermath. The soldiers responded by firing into the nearby buildings and into the crowd, hitting not only the protesters, but also watchers and bystanders. Demonstrators and passersby alike, including students, journalists (one of which was Italian reporter Oriana Fallaci), and children, were hit by bullets, and mounds of bodies soon lay on the ground. Meanwhile, on the Chihuahua building, where the speakers stood, Olympia Battalion members pushed people and ordered them to lie on the ground near the elevator walls. People claim these men were the people who shot first at the soldiers and the crowd.

Video evidence also points out that at least two companies of the Olympia Battalion hid themselves in the nearby apartment buildings and set up a machine gun in an apartment on the Molino del Rey Building, where a sister-in-law of then-Secretary of State Luis Echeverría lived; the church of Santiago de Tlatelolco, where snipers were positioned into the roof; the nearby convent and the Foreign Relations Tower, where there were many people involved including the ones who fired the first two flares; a machine gun on the 19th floor; and a video camera on the 17th floor. Video evidence shows 10 white-gloved men leaving the church and bumping into soldiers, who point their weapons at them. One of the men shows what appears to be an ID, and they are let go.

The killing continued throughout the night, with soldiers and policemen operating on a house-to-house basis in the apartment buildings adjacent to the square. The Chihuahua Building as well as the rest of the neighborhood had its electricity and phones cut off. Witnesses to the event claim that the bodies were first removed in ambulances and later military officials came and piled up bodies, not knowing if they were dead or alive, into the military trucks, while some say that the bodies were piled up on garbage trucks and sent to unknown destinations. The soldiers rounded up the students onto the Chihuahua Building's elevator walls, stripped them, and beat them.

3,000 attendees were taken to the convent next to the church and were left there until early in the morning, most of these being people that had little to nothing in common with the students and were only neighbors, bystanders, passersby and others who were on the plaza just to listen to the speech. Other witnesses claim that in the later days, Olympia Battalion members would disguise themselves as utilities employees and inspect the houses in search of students.

The official government explanation of the incident was that armed provocateurs among the demonstrators, stationed in buildings overlooking the crowd, had begun the firefight. Suddenly finding themselves sniper targets, the security forces had simply returned the shooting in self-defense. By the next morning, newspapers reported that 20 to 28 people had been killed, hundreds wounded, and hundreds more arrested.

Most of the Mexican media reported that the students provoked the army's murderous response with sniper fire from the apartment buildings surrounding the plaza. El Día's morning headline on October 3, 1968, read as followed: "Criminal Provocation at the Tlatelolco Meeting Causes Terrible Bloodshed." The government-controlled media reported the Mexican government's side of the events that night, but the truth eventually emerged: A 2001 investigation revealed documents showing that the snipers were members of the Presidential Guard, who were instructed to fire on the military forces in order to provoke them.

Investigation and response

In 1998, President Ernesto Zedillo, on the 30th anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre, authorized a congressional investigation into the events of October 2. However, the PRI government continued its recalcitrance and did not release official government documents pertaining to the incident. In a 2002 All Things Considered radio interview with Kate Doyle, director of the Mexican Documentation Project for the US National Security Archive, she described the PRI government's investigations: "I mean, there have been a number of investigations throughout the years. In fact, former President Miguel de la Madrid was interviewed yesterday in the press, and said that he had asked the military and the interior secretary for documents and for photographs of the demonstrations, and was subjected to tremendous political pressure not to investigate. And when he continued to press, the military and the interior ministry claimed that their files were in disarray and they had nothing."

Enduring questions remained after "La Noche Triste" (the Sad Night) that have taken the Mexican government over 30 years to answer. Eventually in 2001, President Vicente Fox, the president who ended the 70-year reign of the PRI, attempted to resolve the question of who had orchestrated the massacre. President Fox ordered the release of previously classified documents concerning the 1968 massacre. The documents revealed that Elena Poniatowska's synthesis of the events that October night was accurate, as Kate Doyle uncovered,

Thousands of students gathered in the square and, as you say, the government version is that the students opened fire. Well, there's been pretty clear evidence now that there was a unit that was called the Brigada Olympica, or the Olympic Brigade, that was made up of special forces of the presidential guard, who opened fire from the buildings that surrounded the square, and that that was the thing that provoked the massacre.

President Fox also appointed Ignacio Carrillo Prieto in 2002 to prosecute those responsible for ordering the massacre. In 2006, former President Luis Echeverría was arrested on charges of genocide. However, in March 2009, after a convoluted appeal process, the genocide charges against Echeverria were dismissed. The Mexican newspaper The News reported that "a tribunal of three circuit court judges ruled that there was not enough proof to link Echeverria to the violent suppression of hundreds of protesting students on Oct. 2, 1968." Despite the ruling, prosecutor Carrillo Prieto said he would continue his investigation and seek charges against Echeverria before the United Nations International Court of Justice and the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.

US government records

In October 2003, the role of the United States government in the massacre was publicized when the National Security Archive at George Washington University published a series of records from the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department, the FBI and the White House which were released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The documents detail:

  • That in response to Mexican government concerns over the security of the Olympic Games, the Pentagon sent military radios, weapons, ammunition and riot control training material to Mexico before and during the crisis.
  • That the CIA station in Mexico City produced almost daily reports concerning developments within the university community and the Mexican government from July to October. Six days before the massacre at Tlatelolco, both Echeverría and head of Federal Security (DFS) Fernando Gutiérrez Barrios told the CIA that "the situation will be under complete control very shortly".
  • That the Díaz Ordaz government "arranged" to have student leader Sócrates Campos Lemus accuse dissident PRI politicians such as Carlos Madrazo of funding and orchestrating the student movement.

Apartheid-era South Africa and the 1968 Olympics

South Africa did not compete at Olympic Games from 1964 to 1988, as a part of the sporting boycott of South Africa during the apartheid era. The South African National Olympic Committee (NOC) was expelled from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1970. In 1991, as part of the transition to multiracial equality, a new NOC was formed and admitted to the IOC, and the country competed at the 1992 Summer Olympics.


All sport in South Africa under apartheid was segregated by race, with separate clubs and governing bodies. Only white bodies were affiliated to the South African Olympic and Empire [later Commonwealth] Games Association (SAOEGA, later SAOCGA) so only white South Africans competed at the Olympic Games and the Empire (later Commonwealth) Games. The IOC under Avery Brundage regarded this as an internal matter for South Africa, and, committed to keeping politics and sports separate, took no action. From 1948, black athletes and their federations complained to the IOC about their exclusion, but were told to take the matter up with the SAOCGA.

In the 1950s, NOCs from the Eastern Bloc led by the Soviet Union began to question this stance. With the decolonization of Africa from the late 1950s, NOCs from newly independent states opposed to apartheid began affiliating to the IOC. However, the IOC itself was not representative of NOCs but rather a group of co-opted individuals, still mostly from First World countries. On the other hand, the international federations (IFs), the governing bodies of the Olympic sports, were quicker to give a voice to newer members.


In 1965, SANROC was banned by the South African government, and Dennis Brutus re-established it in exile in London. In 1966, the Organisation of African Unity established the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa (SCSA), which committed itself to expelling South Africa from the Olympics and to boycott the Games if South Africa was present. The Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa (ANOCA) allowed SANROC to affiliate in place of SANOC. (The IOC later made SANROC change "Olympic" to "Open" in its name.) At the 1967 IOC conference in Tehran, SANOC committed to sending a single mixed-race team to the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Separate racial committees would nominate athletes for each race to the combined team. Members from different races could compete against each other at the Games, though not in South Africa. The IOC deferred decision till its meeting at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble. In September 1967, a three-member IOC commission led by Lord Killanin visited South Africa, reporting back in January 1968. A postal ballot of IOC members decided in February that SANOC had made sufficient progress in to be invited to the 1968 Games, on the understanding that remaining discrimination would be ended by the 1972 Games. This verdict prompted the SCSA countries to withdraw; in the USA, the American Committee on Africa organised a boycott by African American athletes; the Eastern Bloc also threatened a boycott. The Mexican organising committee was worried that its Games would be a fiasco and asked the IOC to reconsider. The IOC executive board met on 21 April 1968 to seek a diplomatic formula under which to exclude South Africa, finally agreeing that "due to the international climate, the executive committee was of the opinion it would be most unwise for South Africa to participate"

Věra Čáslavská

In another notable incident in the gymnastics competition, while standing on the medal podium after the balance beam event final, in which Natalia Kuchinskaya of the Soviet Union had controversially taken the gold, Czechoslovakian gymnast Věra Čáslavská quietly turned her head down and away during the playing of the Soviet national anthem. The action was Čáslavská's silent protest against the recent Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Her protest was repeated when she accepted her medal for her floor exercise routine when the judges changed the preliminary scores of the Soviet Larisa Petrik to allow her to tie with Čáslavská for the gold. While Čáslavská's countrymen supported her actions and her outspoken opposition to Communism (she had publicly signed and supported Ludvik Vaculik's "Two Thousand Words" manifesto), the new regime responded by banning her from both sporting events and international travel for many years and made her an outcast from society until the fall of communism.

Vera Caslavska and the forgotten story of her 1968 Olympics protest

Mexico City, 1968. A newly-crowned Olympic champion is about to make the life-changing decision to stage a political protest on the podium.

Tommie Smith's Black Power salute, right?


This 'other protest' came from Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska as a reaction to the Soviet-led invasion of her country two months earlier.

Smith used a raised right fist to powerfully make his point. Caslavska was more subtle, turning her head away from the flag of what she called the "invaders' representatives", the Soviet Union.

The action was understated. The ramifications were huge, as World Service programme Sporting Witness has discovered through the first-hand account of British gymnast Mary Prestidge.

Troubled preparations

Prestidge spent time training alongside Caslavska in the build-up to the Mexico Games as part of an exchange programme. The Czech gymnast was already a superstar, having won three gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, including the individual all-around title.

Her chances of repeating such dominance were dealt a huge blow in the run-up to the Olympics, however, when she was forced into hiding by the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

When the 'Prague Spring' reforms were consequently halted, Caslavska, a vocal opponent of Soviet rule, feared she would be arrested so she retreated to a remote forest hideout.

The Olympics were just two months away. Rather than prepare for Mexico in a gymnasium, Caslavska was forced to warm up for the defining competition of her life by using a log as a makeshift balance beam and shovelling coal to toughen up her hands for the rigours of the apparatus.

"Vera had to go into hiding," Prestidge says. "She was someone who had signed charters and been very active underground towards liberating the country, so she and others had to disappear for a while."

Flawless - but not always first

It didn't take long for Caslavska to catapult herself back into the limelight. The 26-year-old was the dominant force in Mexico - and she knew how to work the crowd.

While the gymnasts from the Soviet Union were often booed by the home crowd, Caslavska, with a floor routine set to Mexican hat dance music, captivated them.

Vera Caslavska, winner of the gold medal in the individual beam competition in Tokyo 1964Vera Caslavska, winner of the gold medal in the individual beam competition in Tokyo 1964
Αποτέλεσμα εικόνας για Vera Caslavska, centre, won three gold medals at the Tokyo 1964 Olympics
Vera Caslavska, centre, won three gold medals at the Tokyo 1964 Olympics

"She had recreated her floor exercises to that piece of music which was obviously a real crowd pleaser, very strategic," remembers Prestidge, who, having finished competing, watched all the finals in Mexico City from the stands. "Her floor exercise was flawless. And actually all of her work seemed flawless."

The judging panel had a different interpretation, however.

Finals day on 25 October 1968 brought with it two separate controversies: Caslavska was forced to share floor gold after the original scores were revised, while in the beam she controversially missed out on top spot altogether.

In both apparatus, a Soviet athlete benefitted: Natalia Kuchinskaya won gold on the beam and Larisa Petrik shared the floor gold.

"There was a bias, I think," Prestidge says. "There was probably a majority of eastern European judges and it was almost like there was a ceiling that was very hard to break for a non-champion to get through. I don't think she (Vera) was complaining about the mark at all. I am sure the rest of the Czech team were."

Caslavska's stated goal for the Games was to "sweat blood to defeat the invaders' representatives". She, like Tommie Smith nine days earlier, felt compelled to make a statement on the podium to highlight a wider cause.

"She was on the podium on the top with Larisa Petrik watching the Czech flag and the USSR flag go up side by side and then listening to the anthems," Prestidge says.

"I can't imagine what she felt. She made a very clear gesture by turning her head away. And then after both anthems and the presentation medals, the shaking of hands takes place. You could see her speaking to Petrik and it was sort of "Oh… I wonder what she said?"

'What did you say?'

Prestidge didn't have to wonder for long. Later that day she was invited up to Caslavska's room to discuss the competition.

"I did ask, 'what did you say?'," Prestidge said. "I don't quite remember her exact words because they were translated but it was to say 'well, I congratulate you on your gymnastics and as a gymnast but not for what your country has done and the invasion of our country'. So quite straightforward and to the point actually."

Despite Caslavska's status as a seven-time Olympic gold medallist and still the only gymnast, male or female, to have won the Olympic title in every individual event, it was the Czech authorities who were the next to make their point.

While Smith was banned from international competition following his gesture, Caslavska retired after Mexico City but was effectively banned from leading a normal life for much of the next 20 years - forced to spend time working as a cleaner and often barred from coaching children.

The Velvet Revolution and fall of communism in 1989 saw Caslavska welcomed back into society - she worked as chair of the national Olympic committee - but her world was turned upside down in 1993.

Tragic ending

While still in Mexico after the 1968 Games, Caslavska married fellow Olympian and Czech 1500m runner Josef Odlozil. They divorced in 1987, and in 1993 a tragedy befell the family when Josef died after a fight with their teenage son Martin in a bar. Caslavska spent much of the rest of her life in a depression.

And Prestidge, much to her eternal regret, never got to see her idol again.

Caslavska died in 2016 and Prestidge says: "I had wanted to say a lot to her. That she was a real inspiration not just in her gymnastics but who she was. The fight in her. The amazing strength of character. I would have loved to see her and really said how much I admired her and how much my generation did.

"She was seen to be much more than just a gymnast or a sportsperson. She carried that in her performance and who she was as a person. The two were tightly together and she never undermined one for the other. She was going to be champion of the world and not sign away her political allegiance either... bravo!"

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