John Carlos was part of the most radical political moment in Olympic history. After winning the bronze medal in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, he and gold medalist Tommie Smith raisedz their black-gloved fists in an emphatic show of support for civil and human rights. For choosing to make a political statement on the Olympic stage, Carlos paid the price: he was ostracized and slandered for decades by the world of Olympic sports. It is difficult to think of a more appropriate person to discuss what athletes will be risking now by speaking out at the Sochi Games.
Dave Zirin: Billie Jean King said in September that she wanted to see someone do a “John Carlos moment” at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. How does it make you feel to be associated with a moment where Billie Jean King can just say that and everyone knows what she means?
John Carlos: Let me just say that Billie Jean King has always been one of my heroes in the world of sports, while on the court and even more so off the court. For her to acknowledge me for my deeds in life, to parallel what she’s been doing in life, is just a marvelous thing. For anyone to text you or to call you, or just see you in the street and tell you, “I read a wonderful quote from Billie Jean King in USA Today, and she said in Sochi they need a John Carlos moment”—you know, it just doesn’t get any better than that. It shows you that people are paying attention, are realizing that we’re in this fight together.
DZ: Speaking of that fight, Sochi is coming up. Based on your experience, what does an Olympic athlete risk by speaking out?
JC: They’re going to risk condemnation. They’re going to ridicule him in the early stages, until society wakes up and realizes that the individual is right and had a right to speak out for the issues that concern his life as well as so many others.
DZ: Now, the International Olympic Committee in your day was of course headed by Avery Brundage, a ruthless man. Today it’s much more of a corporate money-making operation. By your observation, is the IOC today more ruthless or less ruthless than it was in 1968?
JC: Well, I don’t think it’s more or less; I think they just see green. And I think that green has superseded the moral fabric of the Olympic Games. You know, what it stood for back in the days of [modern Olympics founder] Pierre de Coubertin relative to where it is today—they’re way off base.
DZ: Let’s say that one of these winter athletes gave you a phone call and said, “I want to speak out; I’m not sure. I’m worried that it will deflect attention away from the other athletes, and I’m worried that I’ll get in trouble.” What would you say to that athlete?
JC: Well, I wouldn’t be concerned about the other athletes; I’d be concerned about what’s right. I don’t think the fact that you make a statement will affect any of their performances or put a shadow on them. I think that you need to follow your conscience, follow your heart and follow your wisdom, your education as to what the plight is.
DZ: What would you say if an athlete asked you if you had any regrets about what you did in 1968?