When the New York Track Writers Association gathered at Mama Leone’s on January 3 for its first session of 1972, the dominant topic was the gold medal chances of the United States at the Olympic Games in Munich this summer. None of the writers, coaches or track officials at the first luncheon chose to speculate on whether the specter of a black boycott of the U.S. Olympic team will be raised again, as it was before the Mexico City Olympics four years ago. Perhaps no one wished to mar the new year by raising a subject so distasteful to the track establishment.
The memory of Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing with black-gloved hands aloft and heads bowed during the 200-meter victory ceremony in Mexico, still shakes them up at Olympic House on Park Avenue. Posters of Smith and Carlos in the act can still be purchased in Greenwich Village. Memory of the event is still fresh, and the sports establishment is nervous.
When Bill Bowerman of the University of Oregon, who will be the head coach of the U.S. track team, was interviewed shortly after his appointment was announced, he said:
The main problem is that the opposition is awfully good. There are no “walk-on” victories anymore. We’ll be fighting for our lives. There’s no question of that. So it’s extremely important we don’t have any problems which would interfere with our preparations. I don’t think there will be anything like the boycott troubles of 1968.
If there’s a whistling-past-the-graveyard tone to that last sentence it’s justified. There may not be a boycott, but it’s a good bet that something will happen at Munich.
Jack Scott of Berkeley, who is the director of the Institute for the Study of Sport and Society and the author of The Athletic Revolution, says: “There are no formal plans at this time for demonstrations at the Munich Olympics, but, as Harry Edwards points out, ‘It’s too early right now to announce anything—even if plans are under way.’ ”
Edwards was the architect of the boycott movement four years ago. He is the former San Jose State athlete—now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California—who promulgated the idea that black athletes should refuse to compete for the United States in Mexico. That strategy was subsequently abandoned in favor of the Smith-Carlos salute and the less controversial black berets worn by Lee Evans, Ron Freeman, Vince Matthews and Larry James at victory ceremonies.
In 1968 Edwards made the mistake of talking a lot about what was going to happen before he had the black athletes solidly in his movement. That was one of the factors that made the boycott strategy impossible and dictated a lesser protest. Judging by the sentence of his that Scott quotes, Edwards is being more careful this time, and Munich may be different.
Scott says: “My opinion is that if certain athletes make the team, the Mexico City demonstrations will seem like an afternoon tea in comparison with what will happen in Munich. If demonstrations were warranted in 1968—and I certainly believe they were—they are even more warranted today.”