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

By Amy Bass | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
An Olympic Challenge: Preparing
for the “Problem Games”

Nigger Smith…. You don't know me and I don't know you, however I have heard that you are a fast nigger. You said off the track you are just another nigger…. Now call all your niggers together, plan your action (heroic type) and go out and snatch an elderly white lady's purse, or perhaps break a window out of an old man's shop. You know, do something real brave, something you and only you niggers are capable of doing.

—Letter to Tommie Smith from “Just a YANKEE giving you the straight poop, ” reprinted in Harry Edwards,

Revolt of the Black Athlete

We like the Olympic Games, but we feel our cause is more important. These should not be related, because Mexico has spent a lot of money on the Games. But that is the way it is. The generation gap everyone speaks of has grown to world wide proportions now. It is everywhere. Your way of life, with your mechanism and your Olympics, does not suit us.

—Mexican student leader, quoted in Sports Illustrated, October 14, 1968

Scientific studies between the two world wars authoritatively worked to establish Negro as a separate category of physique that habitually existed outside national and ethnic classifications. But the construction of the black athlete, obviously, was not left entirely to those in the laboratory. Rather, organic political discourse actively positioned the athlete in wide-ranging civil rights efforts that accompanied the close of World War II, creating the important social and cultural transformation

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