Black Lives Matter Wants to Turn Rio Athletes Into Activists

While the Olympics have been about politics as much as about sports, athletes at the 2016 games might go the extra mile.

American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists and give the black power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. The move was a symbolic protest against racism in the United States. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

Aug 5, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Gwendolyn Wu is an editorial intern at TakePart and a junior at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

An iconic moment in Olympic Games history is the 1968 image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter dash, raising their black-gloved fists while standing on the victory podium in Mexico City. The two men were barefoot, a nod to the poverty experienced by black Americans, and Carlos wore beads around his neck, signifying those who had been lynched. Smith and Carlos were booed by many in the crowd, but their actions reminded millions of television viewers that despite the pair’s athletic accomplishments, racial discrimination was alive and well in the United States.

Nearly 50 years later, the names of black people killed by law enforcement officers have become common on social media, schools are as segregated as ever, and roughly 30 percent of black Americans live in poverty. That’s why Black Lives Matter activists hope the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will provide a platform for socially conscious athletes to protest police brutality and racism.

RELATED: The Collective Trauma of Watching the End of Black Lives

“I’m almost sure that you’re going to get [protests], but do I know when and where it’s going to take place? No, I don’t,” John Selders, a chaplain in Massachusetts and one of six Black Lives Matter activists who visited Rio in July, told TakePart.

Athletes have to decide if—and how—they’re protesting, Waltrina Middleton, another Black Lives Matter activist who went to Rio, wrote in an email to TakePart. “Some may choose not to play the sport and tell why. Some would use the sport as a platform to raise concerns. There are many ways, but all they need is one that is relevant and that will capture the attention of their fan base.”

RELATED: ‘Worried’ About Race Relations? You’re Answering the Wrong Question

The modern-day precedent for athletes to take action at the Olympics seems to exist: Several professional athletes have spoken out against police brutality and racism in the United States. Members of WNBA teams, including the Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury, wore “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts during warm-up practices, and stars such as the New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony are using social media to speak to their fans and fellow athletes about the need to take action.

“I’m calling for all my fellow ATHLETES to step up and take charge,” Anthony wrote on Instagram in July after the killings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota by police and the shooting deaths of five officers in Dallas. “There’s NO more sitting back and being afraid of tackling and addressing political issues anymore. Those days are long gone.”

RELATED: Stephen Colbert and Killer Mike Get Real About Race in America

According to Rita Liberti, the director of California State University’s East Bay Center for Sports and Social Justice, given the potential number of television viewers—about 3.6 billion people around the world watched the 2012 Summer Olympics in London—the 2016 Summer Games is an ideal place for athletes to make a statement.

“I don’t know if we’ll have a Carlos and Smith moment, but there have been so many examples in recent years of athletes who said no or unsettled the status quo,” Liberti told TakePart. “Athletes are collectively getting that they wield tremendous power and they could use it to make change.”

When Carlos and Smith raised their fists, they were protesting as part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a coalition of Americans who were trying to shine a spotlight on racism in sports and the effects of segregation. Activists wanted black athletes to boycott the 1968 Olympic Games, to no avail. As American sports journalist Dave Zirin wrote, in 2012 prior to the London games, “Athletes who had spent their whole lives preparing for their Olympic moment simply couldn’t bring themselves to give it up.”

Middleton wrote that when Black Lives Matter activists headed to Rio in July, they teamed up with Brazil Police Watch, a police brutality and corruption watchdog, to protest racialized violence in the city. Law enforcement officers have committed 16 percent of the city’s homicides in the last five years, according to Amnesty International. The activists also observed the disparity between the new Olympic structures and poor residents displaced to make way for the sporting event.

RELATED: How Black Lives Matter Reshaped the Traditional Narrative About Police Killings

“It is important for the international communities to be intentional observers of how civilians are treated leading up to, during, and post the games,” Middleton wrote. “Games should never be placed over the value of human life, human dignity, and human rights.”

While Middleton and Selders said their delegation won’t be returning to Rio, other international activists affiliated with Black Lives Matter will be there.

“Black Lives Matter is vast, diverse and it is not singular,” Middleton wrote. “Black Lives Matter means Black Lives Matter everywhere. This has always been and continues to be a global and diasporic movement.”