JULY 31, 1976
Will the all-too-precipitate departure of the black nations brand the twenty-first Olympiad as "the White Games?" This was obviously Africa's purpose in exiting en bloc, if helter-skelter: to emphasize the dignity of the black man by undermining the international character of the event.
The issue for the Africans was the presence in Montreal of New Zealand, which earlier this month had sent a rugby team to play in racist South Africa. Sadly, despite the commendable motives of the Africans, their gesture is doomed to failure. And, what is worse, oblivion. For the most important black contingent, from a political perspective, the members of the United States team, remained in Montreal. Activists in the anti-apartheid movement query why They haven't left.
The answer is significant from several points of view. Just prior to the opening of the games, there was a plenary team meeting at which, as it was announced by the press secretary, the American athletes voted unanimously to stay and play, regardless of outside pressure. This decision was arrived at despite what an American spokesman referred to as considerable sympathy for the political position of the Africans. The Americans were there to compete, not debate.
The truth, of course, is never that simple. Despite the ultimate declaration without dissent, there were indeed American athletes both white and black who had expressed willingness to leave in support of the Africans. They were in part dissuaded by a very strong counterargument. Back in Mexico in '68, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium and raised their black gloves to protest American racism, they had no significant support from their African brothers. Who left the games when they were expelled?
And herein lies a second and more important lesson to be learned from the current incident at Montreal: the Africans left too soon.
The entire world—and not just sports freaks— vividly recalls the action of Smith and Carlos at Mexico City, They were winners, the focus of world attention or, more precisely, the television cameras. They wanted to communicate to the largest possible audience. And their upraised arms did just that. They chose the perfect moment for a political demonstration.
At Montreal, I am sad to report, the out-of-sight Africans are already out of mind. Virtually no one speaks of the absent continent. Thus who will remember the departure of such likely gold medalists as Mike Boit (Kenya), John Akii-Bua (Uganda) and Filbert Bayi (Tanzania)? And these three—who very much wanted to compete—^could have broken world records en route to victory. What message will their nonpresence convey?
The slogan of the '60s, "The whole world is watching," often turned out to be accurate- For a gesture to engrave itself on the conscience of mankind, it needs a giant theater and a global audience. This means the winners' stand, not an airport departure lounge.
In retrospect, we admire ail the more the sheer brilliance of Tommie Smith's tactics in Mexico. Here at Montreal the whole world would again be watching as black Africans mounted the podium to be acknowledged Olympic champions. Then the glove of protest, then the dramatic refusal to accept a tarnished goal. And a chance to discourse at length to an avid collection of sensation-loving international press. There is no message without media.
But now at Montreal, it is already Olympics as usual.