The organization’s hall of fame was established in 1979. It has been dormant for stretches; this year marks the first induction class since 2012 and the 16th overall.
Smith and Carlos were responsible for one of the most recognizable moments in Olympic history, raising their fists in protest on the medal podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics. They have previously been bestowed with a long list of honors, including induction to the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame.
“One could be forgiven for rolling their eyes at the USOC finally — after 51 years — catching up with the rest of the world,” Dave Zirin, the sports columnist for the Nation who co-wrote Carlos’s autobiography, wrote in an email Monday.
U.S. Olympic officials were aware well ahead of time that a group of athletes had been considering a boycott of the 1968 Summer Games altogether. Among other things, the protesting athletes wanted more black coaches; South Africa and Rhodesia to be excluded from the Olympics; and the removal of Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee who was accused of racism and anti-Semitism, from power.
Doug Roby, head of the USOC at the time, wrote Brundage a letter two months before the Mexico City Games commenced, saying, “We intend to have every athlete thoroughly understand that we will countenance no nonsense and that anyone that participates or that attempts to participate in any demonstration as referred to will be immediately suspended as a member of our team and returned to his home at the earliest possible date.”
In Mexico, Smith broke the world record in the 200 meters and Carlos finished in third. On the medal podium, each man raised a fist and bowed his head. They wore black gloves and no shoes, drawing attention to oppression, poverty and pride.
That sparked a swirl of activity from Olympic officials. The USOC initially decided against a suspension, intending to issue a warning to the rest of the American athletes competing in Mexico. The International Olympic Committee demanded a stronger response, fearing “that racial dissension might spread to other delegations if USOC refused to suspend Smith and Carlos,” according to a dispatch sent from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City at the time.
The IOC met twice the next day. According to that organization’s minutes, the group felt “something had to be done as this incident could not be ignored.” The IOC’s feelings were shared with the USOC, which held its own executive committee meeting.
“President Roby reconvened his Board and in plain English relayed the edict-vote to send Smith and Carlos packing or the USA would be eliminated,” Robert Paul Jr., the USOC’s communications director at the time, later wrote.
The USOC sent out a statement to reporters expressing its “profound regrets to the International Olympic Committee, to the Mexican Organizing Committee and to the people of Mexico for the discourtesy displayed by two members of its team.” At a news conference, Roby “emphasized USOC action taken under pressure from IOC,” Paul wrote.
Roby died in 1992. If he had regrets, he kept them to himself. In letters that are now stored in the University of Michigan archives, he defended the decision and said feedback he received ran as much as 10 to 1 in support of the USOC’s response.
“The Olympic Games is not a place for demonstrations of any type,” he wrote in response to one letter-writer. “If we had let the incident regarding Tommie Smith and John Carlos pass without some sort of action being taken, we might have had some demonstrations of the Czechs against the Soviets, Israel against the Arab countries, South Korea against North Korea, or Cuba against the United States, to mention but a few, and our ceremonies would have been a farce.”
Smith and Carlos felt ostracized from the Olympic community for years but have increasingly been heralded as iconic activists and accomplished athletes. In 2016, they were invited to visit the White House and President Barack Obama, along with that year’s U.S. Summer Olympics team.
“Carlos and Smith have been proven correct by history,” Zirin wrote. “They were correct that South Africa and Rhodesia should not be allowed into the Olympics. They were correct that Avery Brundage was a racist who had no business heading the IOC. They were correct that the injustices of 1968 demanded a visceral and visual response. This is a case of the USOC finally acknowledging the nose on its face."