Any young athletes out there wondering what to do about the Sochi Olympics, don’t listen to the spine-caved International Olympic Committee. Instead listen to the plain voice of Martin Luther King Jr. He wasn’t an athlete, unless pool-sharking counted, but he was more observant of sports than you would suppose, and he was especially interested in the Olympics as a stage for disobedience. There is no question he would tell today’s athletes, “Protest.”
The Olympics have become a direct cause of human rights abuses: In three of the last four venues selected by the IOC, we’ve had detention and torture of anti-Olympic protestors in Beijing; tear gas and rubber bullets for similar protestors in Rio; and forced evictions, labor exploitation and the threat of arrest for anyone who happens to be too visibly homosexual in Sochi. The IOC would have us think these are delicate moral matrices and none of its affair and insists that athletes be apolitical. To which King would have replied, in that piercingly truthful alto, that any organization that “continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.”
This isn’t speculation. We have evidence that King viewed the Olympics as a platform for protest. Fifty years ago, King gave his most famous speech, but 45 years ago this summer, he was involved in a lesser-known episode, when he urged John Carlos and Tommie Smith to take the action that became their immortal black-gloved salute at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City. King’s influence on them — and what he had to say about the Olympics — is worth reexamining in light of the Sochi Games and the questions athletes might have about sanctioning them.
Smith, Carlos and other black amateur athletes led by Harry Edwards attempted to organize a boycott of Mexico City based on a range of racial injustices and formed an organization called the Olympic Project for Human Rights. “Why should we run in Mexico only to crawl home?” they asked. In early 1968, King met with them in New York and told them he would publicly support the group’s boycott. When Carlos asked him why, this was his answer, as recounted by Carlos in his memoir co-written with Dave Zirin:
King compared the Olympics to the calm surface of a lake. He asked Carlos what happens when you drop a rock in it and answered his own question. “It ripples,” he said. “And the ripples go out to the far end of the lake.” Athletes who chose to make a statement at the Olympics were the rocks. They could “ripple throughout the world,” he said.
King not only liked the idea of a boycott of Mexico City, he also offered to organize some kind of active protest or demonstration in Mexico City. “We’re not saying ‘burn it down,’ ” he said. “We’re just merely saying we don’t care to participate and see how you feel without us as a part of the show.” He promised to begin working on an Olympic protest as soon as he finished with his efforts in support of sanitation workers in Memphis.
Carlos then asked King another question: Why was he risking danger by going back to Memphis? “John, I have to go back and stand for those that won’t stand for themselves, and I have to go back for those that can’t stand for themselves,” King said.