In the fall of 1964, Paul Hoffman walked into the Harvard boathouse and hung from the wall a Mexico City tourism poster. He was a freshman at the time but knew exactly how he wanted this college rowing career to end: with a spot competing at the 1968 Summer Olympics.
There was no way to know then, of course, what all that might entail: how he would reach those Mexico City Games but find himself at odds with the men who ran the U.S. Olympic team, how racial tensions and the civil rights movement would consume the country, how he would choose a side in the debate and become an oft-forgotten part of one of the biggest stories of activism in a sporting arena.
Fifty years ago this month, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos each famously punched gloved fists into the air while the national anthem played, a black-power symbol that rocked those Summer Olympics with reverberations that can still be felt today. The Harvard rowing team had joined the cause earlier in 1968, the most visible, most vocal and perhaps most unlikely supporters Smith and Carlos had on their way to the medal stand in Mexico. No white U.S. athletes signed onto the movement and backed the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) the way the Ivy League rowers did. They were public with their support and embarked on a letter-writing campaign to recruit other Mexico City-bound Olympians too.
“The Harvard crew team — of course, I was surprised,” said sociologist Harry Edwards, who organized OPHR a half-century ago. “This wasn’t like a group of white guys who were enrolled at Howard or something and felt like they wanted to step up. I mean, it was a bit out of left field.”
The OPHR formed in the fall of 1967, as a group of amateur black athletes concerned about the treatment of African Americans. They had threatened to boycott the 1968 Summer Games entirely, if their demands weren’t met. They wanted more black coaches. They wanted Olympic officials to restore Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight title, to disinvite South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) from the Olympics, and to remove Avery Brundage, the controversial International Olympic Committee president, from power.
Outside of the sometimes-insulated sports world, much of the country was seized by racial tensions and turbulence. In the months leading up to the Mexico City Games, there were riots and protests across the country, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, as was Robert Kennedy, antiwar sentiments grew and the Democratic National Convention was disrupted.
“It was a year that was just full of turmoil,” said Andy Larkin, one of Harvard’s Olympic rowers. “It was impossible to ignore what was going on beyond the boathouse.”
The Harvard crew was composed of young white men, all largely removed from the issues confronting many black Americans at the time. “If you were at Harvard College in 1968, you were almost definitionally advantaged,” Hoffman said. “I think we all figured out we were pretty lucky to be where we were.”
But they also felt they had some role to play. Silently rowing while the broader conversation swirled around them did not sit well with most of the rowers. They learned quickly, however, that many people in and out of the sports world felt social issues were verboten for athletes.
“At the end of the day, they really didn’t even like the idea that any athletes — even Harvard guys — could be thinking for themselves,” Hoffman said.
Joining the cause
Until 1972, college teams competed in full to represent the United States in the Olympics, and in July 1968, the Harvard eight edged out the University of Pennsylvania crew at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Long Beach, Calif., punching a ticket to Mexico City. While the crew scattered following the race, two of the Harvard rowers went up to San Jose State University to meet with Edwards and learn more about OPHR.
Just a week later, Edwards was in Cambridge, Mass., meeting with the full crew, explaining the movement and what OPHR aimed to accomplish. The grassroots organization was still threatening a boycott, which the Harvard team was not interested in, but Edwards knew that a powerful statement in Mexico City was more likely.
“I tried to be as honest as I could in terms of what we were doing without coming out and saying, ‘Hey, we’re not looking for a totally uniform boycott,’” Edwards said in a recent telephone interview. “But I thought it was important that it be understood that just as whites were involved in the Freedom Riders, in voter registration and so forth, we had an obligation to be open to everybody who supported us and to respect them for the contributions that they were making.”
After meeting with Edwards, six of the crew members agreed to go public with their support for OPHR.
“What I think everybody was feeling a little bit of unease about was this notion that the world is going through what it was going through our senior year without us really being involved,” Hoffman said.
Three other rowers weighed their options and decided against signing a public statement that would be released to the media.
“I think my politics were maybe a little bit more right of center than theirs,” said Steve Brooks, the youngest member of the crew. “I fully knew what was going on. It didn’t affect my relationship with anyone.”
The Harvard rowers announced three goals: “to help the white athletes selected for the Olympic team obtain information about the reasons for and the goals of the black demonstration, to stimulate an open-ended discussion of the issues between white and black, and to discuss means of voicing our support at the Olympic Games.”
The Harvard crew vowed to contact other athletes, sending them handwritten letters as soon as those others qualified for the U.S. Olympic team.
“Looking back at that 50 years later,” Larkin says today, “it strikes me how little we said, how benign it was. We said, ‘Hey, we want to listen to the black guys.’ … I remain stunned at the overwhelming response that received.”
Not only did the rowers receive no response back, but many American athletes forwarded the letters directly to the U.S. Olympic Committee, which was not pleased and strongly considered expelling the crew from the Mexico-bound Olympic team before relenting.
The Harvard rowers concluded their altitude training in Colorado before departing for Mexico City. Most continued wearing OPHR buttons, and some tried striking up conversations with fellow U.S. Olympians. Hoffman recalls giving an American boxer a button, drawing the ire of a boxing coach who got physical with the rower.
As the Opening Ceremonies neared, the larger movement had splintered in a way that allowed athletes to settle on their personal form of protest or to focus on their Olympic competition.
The American crew struggled adjusting to the altitude and never contended in its opening heat on Oct. 13, 1968, finishing nearly 10 seconds off pace. Two days later, they shuffled positions in the boat for the second-chance repechage race, moving Brooks to stroke at the front of the boat. Midway through the race, the American crew was in last but made a late charge, finishing second and advancing to the Olympic final four days later.
They filled the time between races with practice sessions, attending other Olympic events and recovering from illnesses that were going around. Hoffman went to Olympic Stadium for the track and field events Oct. 16. That happened to be the day of the men’s 200-meter final, where Smith set a world record and Carlos finished third, just four-hundredths of a second behind Australia’s Peter Norman.
Hoffman had been seated in the stands near the wives of Smith and Carlos. The sprinters passed by the group as they walked out of the tunnel for the medal ceremony. Norman spotted the OPHR buttons and approached Hoffman.
“He said, ‘Hey mate, have you got another one of those buttons?’” Hoffman recalled.
Norman wore the button and stood stoically as the “Star-Spangled Banner” played and Smith and Carlos raised their fists in the air. Norman returned to Australia a pariah of sorts for standing in solidarity with the protesting Americans, and his actions weren’t celebrated there until long after his 2006 death.
In the stands, Hoffman’s small gesture did not go unnoticed either. While U.S. officials discussed whether they should punish Smith and Carlos, they also debated what to do about Hoffman. Under pressure from the IOC, the sprinters would be expelled from the Olympics, but the Harvard rowers, with Hoffman serving as cox, still had a race ahead of them.
The night before the Olympic final, Hoffman waited in a hotel conference room while his fate was being decided. The rest of the team was back at the Olympic Village, discussing whether they could even field a boat without Hoffman, who essentially served as the coach on the water.
“If Hoffman had been judged guilty of conspiring, it is probable that the U.S. would not have entered a boat in the finals since individuals on Harvard’s crew were not willing to row without him,” the Harvard Crimson student newspaper reported at the time.
Hoffman finally received word — “They came down and said, ‘Congratulations, you can row tomorrow,’” he recalls, “as if I just won the Olympic trials” — but didn’t back to the Olympic Village until 11 p.m., just hours before the race he’d spent four years dreaming about.
‘No place in the Olympic Games’
By time the Olympic final started, the American crew had little left in tank. The altitude, the stress, the late night before the race, the logistics — the boat finished seven seconds off pace, last among the six boats. At the post-race ceremony, boats traditionally row by the stands in their order of finish. Brundage, the head of the IOC, applauded for five boats, according to reports, but dropped his hands to his side and stared ahead as the American crew rowed past.
Just a couple of weeks later, Roby, the USOC head, sent revered Harvard coach Harry Parker a letter in which he seemed to revel in the crew’s Olympic result. Roby assailed the rowers, the school and the coach, saying “serious intellectual degeneration has taken place in this once great University if you and several members of your crew are examples of the type of men that are within its walls.”
He blamed the coach for the rowers’ actions and lectured: “Civil rights and the promotion of social justice may have their place in various facets of society, but certainly this sort of promotion has no place in the Olympic Games, and particularly when they are held in a foreign country.”
Looking back, the rowers are certain their disappointing result had nothing to do with any social stances or placid protests.
“When we were little, there was this belief that children should be seen and not heard,” says Larkin, who recently authored a book called “My Life in Boats: Fast and Slow.” “Clearly, in 1968, athletes should be seen and not heard. But we felt that, you know, if you want us to be your athletes, you should listen to us.”
When Carlos and Smith left the medal stand, they returned home to plenty of scrutiny and animosity. They faced years of hardships, and decades passed before either was universally celebrated. The Harvard crew disbanded, graduated, got jobs, enrolled in law schools and medical schools. Others seemed to be a lot more impacted by their understated activism.
“They said that they weren’t concerned about reprisal for their political beliefs or their spiritual beliefs so they were just like us,” Carlos wrote in his autobiography, The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World. “They felt like, whatever the consequences, we needed to come together to do the job. They had been with us all along, giving us their thumbs-up and full support. That support lasted through the years.”