Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete

Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete

Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete

Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete


Jesse Owens. Muhammad Ali. Michael Jordan. Tiger Woods. All are iconic black athletes, as are Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the two African American track and field medalists who raised black-gloved fists on the victory dais at the Mexico City Olympics and brought all of the roiling American racial politics of the late 1960s to a worldwide television audience. But few of those viewers fully realized what had led to this demonstration -- vents that included the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., uprisings in American cities, student protests around the world, the rise of the Black Power movement, and decolonization and apartheid in Africa.

In this far-reaching account, Amy Bass offers nothing less than a history of the black athlete. Beginning with the racial eugenics discussions of the early twentieth century and their continuing reverberations in popular perceptions of black physical abilities, Bass explores ongoing African American attempts to challenge these stereotypes. In particular, she examines the Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organization that worked to mobilize black athletes in the 1960s and whose work culminated with the Mexico City protest.

Although Tommie Smith and John Carlos were reviled by Olympic officials for their demonstration, Bass traces how their protest has come to be the defining image of the 1968 Games, with lingering effects in the sports world and on American popular culture generally. She then focuses on images of black athletes in the post-civil rights era, a period characterized by a shift from the social commentary of Muhammad Ali to the entrepreneurial approach of Michael Jordan.

Ultimately Bass not only excavates the fraughthistory of black athleticism but also offers an incisive look at media coverage of athletic events -- and the way sport is intimately bound up in popular constructions of the nation.


In 1997, when Tiger Woods won the Masters and donned the green jacket that accompanies the preeminent title, golf became thrilling to watch for an entirely new audience. The hush of the announcers, the roar of the golfing fans (yes, roar, and yes, fans), the screaming headlines in the next morning's sports pages, the discussions that surrounded the water cooler, and the unprecedented millions of dollars bestowed upon the young athlete by various corporate entities all indicated that something important had happened. On the hallowed (putting) greens of Augusta, where Woods would not have been allowed membership relatively few years earlier, history had been made. And America did not have a language with which to deal with the phenom.

Not since Lee Elder squared off against Jack Nicklaus in a suddendeath playoff at the American Golf Classic in 1968 had a black golfer gained so much televised attention. The sports press cast the feat of Woods as a breaking of a modern color line, yet no one, including Woods himself, could fully describe exactly which color line had been broken. The press conveyed his parental heritage as decidedly “mixed”— African American, Asian, and Native American. Yet overwhelmingly, people portrayed Woods as a “black athlete, ” a golfer who had accomplished something in the wake of path breakers like Elder, John Shippen, Dewey Brown, and Charlie Sifford. However, he repeatedly told the press he did not consider himself to be black but, rather, tried to . . .

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