Smith’s Gesture Symbolizes Oberlin Values, 50 Years Later

The 1968 Summer Olympics produced one of the most defining images of the 20th century. After Tommie Smith and John Carlos, both representing the USA, placed first and third respectively in the 200-meter race, both men raised their fists to the sky in a symbol of Black resistance and an endorsement of civil and human rights on the global stage.

It was — and continues to be — an important moment in the history of the Olympics as a platform for politics and activism as well as exceptional athleticism. For members of the Oberlin community, it should represent even more than that.

One of the most visible conversations at Oberlin last fall centered around athletics — specifically, the connections (or lack thereof) between the athletic community and the rest of the campus. Often, this debate led to a perceived divide between athletes and activists: the narrative that you can either embody Oberlin’s intrinsic and historic legacy of political and social progress, or you can play sports.

Anybody familiar with Oberlin’s athletic community — including myself — knows that there are athletes who commit themselves to bettering the world around them, both on and off the field. There is nothing that intrinsically divides athletics from activism — countless examples both at Oberlin and elsewhere remind us of that.

There is perhaps no better time to reflect on the power of athletics — and, by extension, individual athletes — to make change in local and global communities than the Olympics. On Friday, the Opening Ceremony for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games will take place. The Olympics, in both historic and modern contexts, have merged athletics and politics in powerful ways. The lead up to South Korea has already produced a number of headlines significant to international relations — a common outcome of the weeks leading up to the beginning of either the summer or winter competitions.

The Oberlin community has its own valuable connection to the political influence of the Olympic Games. However, as I’ve asked other students about this link, I’ve found that many of them are unaware of it. I only learned of it through an alumnus who graduated in the 1980s, and throughout this fall it seemed to me to be a missing connection in the ongoing dialogue about athletics and activism at Oberlin.

In 1972, Tommie Smith — the aforementioned gold-medal runner — became a track coach at Oberlin College. He came to the Midwest under duress of heavy public criticism following his demonstration in Mexico City four years prior. The International Olympic Committee had been one of the most vocal in opposing Smith and Carlos, maintaining the oft-repeated but always misplaced argument that sports and politics should not mix.

Smith spoke about his experience at Oberlin in an interview published in the spring 2016 edition of Oberlin’s alumni magazine.[1] He remembers his time here as a time of growth, saying, “I was underground at Oberlin and grew above ground before I left.”

In order to fully engage with the conversation around athletics and activism at Oberlin, it is vital that we keep the stories of people like Smith above ground. During my time here, I’ve heard a lot about the Obie-athlete divide — but I’ve heard barely anything about Smith’s time at Oberlin, or his legacy of using sport to leave the world better than he found it.

Oberlin’s history of activism must be evaluated completely, not in bits and pieces. I do not think that Oberlin has attempted to obscure Tommie Smith’s time on campus, but I also believe that his legacy is not fully recognized and celebrated by students. It’s an incredible piece of our collective history, a connection between our beloved campus and the outside world — a reminder that the distinction between sports and politics is not always adversarial, but indeed sometimes collaborative. Any conversation about the role of athletics at Oberlin is incomplete without mention of Smith’s contributions, both to the school and the world.

As the Winter Olympics are set to begin, Obies should remember our legacy of engaging the connections between athletics and activism on a national scale. The harm committed by athletic culture on our campus is certainly not to ignored — as we have learned over the past semester, there is great room for the athletic community to become more welcoming and inclusive, and there are many who are committed to making that growth a reality. However, the potential that sports has to facilitate social progress must be acknowledged as well.

Today, Tommie Smith is 73 years old. He no longer runs in Olympic races or coaches at Oberlin College. His image, though, will live on in the efforts of all those who seek to use athletic excellence to make those around them a better place. All athletes and non-athletes would do well to learn from his legacy — particularly those of us whose communities have had the privilege of learning from people like Smith on an intimate level.

During these next few weeks, athletes at Oberlin can spend some time reflecting on the Olympics, Tommie Smith, and how their communities can be used for the betterment of campus as a whole — and non-athletes can think about how sports can be used as an ally, rather than an enemy, to their own social justice goals. With this spirit of collaboration, and by keeping examples like Smith in mind, I believe a harmonious link between two groups — though sometimes it seems like two cultures — can and will be found.