By David Kurlander
Gymnast Simone Biles returned to Olympic competition on Tuesday, winning the Bronze medal in the balance beam final. Biles’ triumph followed her decision last week to withdraw from the team and individual all-around finals after experiencing disorientation (the “twisties”) during early rounds. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Projecting America at the Olympics,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman called Biles’ decision “an entirely new way of looking at what it means to be an American” and positioned Biles in context with past moments of Olympics activism, from Jesse Owens’ victories in 1936 Berlin to John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s Black Power Salute in 1968 Mexico. Four years after Smith and Carlos, at the tragic and tangled 1972 Munich Games, another duo of Black American sprinters defended their own political and emotional autonomy on the winner’s podium.
In Munich, the problem started with Rhodesia. The country, now Black-controlled Zimbabwe, was ruled in 1972 by pro-apartheid Prime Minister Ian Smith, who had unilaterally declared independence from Britain seven years earlier to retain white rule. The United Nations refused to recognize the new nation, and Smith was barreling toward an eventual civil war with Black opposition parties.
Avery Brundage, the 84-year-old American head of the International Olympic Committee, had reluctantly barred Rhodesia from the 1968 Games in Mexico City, but orchestrated a compromise to secure its participation in Munich: the Rhodesians would effectively present as British, marching in to “God Save the Queen” and securing British passports in advance of the games.
A week before the games, however, Ethiopia and Kenya—the two largest Black delegations in Munich—threatened to boycott the competition if Rhodesia were included. Many other African nations and a large group of Black American athletes also participated in the push against Rhodesia.
Vince Matthews was one of the most vocal American sprinters on the Rhodesia issue. A 24-year-old Black social worker from Brooklyn, Matthews had won Gold as part of the 4×400 meter relay team in Mexico City.
In advance of the Rhodesia vote, he wrote up a statement with fellow sprinters, including UCLA teammates Wayne Collett and John Smith: “We denounce Rhodesia’s participation and if they are allowed to compete, we will take a united stand with our African brothers.”
On August 22nd, 1972, four days before the opening ceremony, the IOC, in a slim vote of 36-31, voted to ban Rhodesia. Brundage was incensed. After the vote, a reporter asked Brundage, “Do you agree that the political pressure on the Olympics has become intolerable?” Brundage responded bluntly, “I agree.” The New York Times asked Matthews about the vote: “If Rhodesia had been allowed to compete, not more than one or two American, black athletes would have stayed.”
Matthews, Collett, and Smith were all favorites in the 400 meters. As their race approached, other racialized incidents further fomented their opposition to the IOC. On August 29th, Olympic judges ruled 2-3 against Black American boxer Reggie Jones during a round-of-64 bout against Soviet champion Valeri Tregnov, despite Jones’ perceived dominance in the contest. Jones told the Los Angeles Times of the ruling, “I wanted to cry. But why? It’s nothing new. It’s happened to me before.”
Then, on August 31st, Black sprinters Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson missed their heat in the quarterfinals of the 100 meters, due to outdated schedules that German officials gave to assistant coach Stan Wright. Wright was widely blamed for the mishap, and spoke for the team on ABC News, where anchor Howard Cosell assailed him for the mistake. In his 1974 memoir, My Race Be Won, Matthews questioned why Wright had been put in the media crosshairs: “It was the old story: Stan Wright was black, he could relate to the black athletes, so why not get the story more easily from him?”
These controversies, however, were overshadowed by the events of September 5th, when Palestinian terrorist group Black September raided the Olympic Village. The terrorists killed two Israeli athletes and took nine more hostage. After a chaotic rescue attempt at the airport, the terrorists murdered the remaining hostages. New Yorker writer E.J. Kahn captured the feeling of hopelessness—and historical poignancy—in the killings: “Whoever was at fault in the botched rescue effort, it will not help much to be able to assign the blame, if any, for the death of eleven more Jews in Germany.”
The day after the massacre, Brundage held a memorial service at the Olympic Stadium. Amid calls to cancel the rest of the Olympics, he loudly stated, “The games must go on.” In his memoir, Matthews criticized Brundage’s flamboyance: “There was no reason for Brundage to crawl on his white horse and cry out. Everyone felt bad enough.”
Brundage then offered an infamous comparison between the earlier Rhodesia controversy and the killings: “The games of the 20th Olympiad have been subjected to two savage attacks. We lost the Rhodesian battle against naked political blackmail.” Brundage later issued an apology, saying, “There was not the slightest intention of linking the Rhodesia question, which was purely a matter of sport, with an act of terrorism universally condemned.” But the damage was done.
It was in this climate that Matthews, Collett, and Smith ran the 400 meters on September 7th. Matthews and Collett took Gold and Silver, while Smith pulled his hamstring during the race and was unable to finish.
After the race, Matthews and Collett took the podium for the medal ceremony. Matthews invited Collett, who was shoeless, onto his podium. Rather than stand at attention as the Star-Spangled Banner played, the two talked casually and Matthews stroked his beard. They dismounted amid boos and Collett gave a Black Power salute from near the tunnel. “I was standing there just being myself. That was the way I felt about the whole program,” Matthews explained in his memoir.
As criticism of their refusal to stand at attention mounted, Smith and Collett agreed to a television interview with Cosell. “I feel that, looking back on it now, my actions on the victory stand probably will mirror the attitude of white America toward Blacks—total, casual, as long as we’re not embarrassing them,” Collett said. Collett and Matthews refused to apologize.
In an interview on the television show Black Journal after returning to New York, Matthews focused on the social injustices that had also informed his protest. “Let’s just take a quick look, as far as the news is concerned. Police breaking into apartments, shooting Panthers. Panthers being lined up, made to strip. Angela Davis being put on the Top 10 and only being a suspect.”
Matthews followed up in his memoir on the hypocrisy of those angry at their protest: “The same people who put flagpoles in the front yards of their suburban homes or attach big American Eagles to their front doors as symbols of loyalty are the same ones who would sell in an instant if they heard that a black family was moving next door. Patriotism has more shades than red, white and blue.”
The day after the podium ceremony, during a U.S. Olympic Committee meeting to ostensibly determine the fate of the sprinters, Brundage’s IOC went over their head and sent a letter: Collett and Matthews would be banned from the Olympics for life. After reading the letter, a USOC official asked Collett if he had anything else to say. He responded, “I’m just sorry I have to be involved with people who are concerned with such trivial things.”
A large swath of the U.S. Olympic community believed the punishment overly harsh. Even Wayne Baughman, a wrestler and conservative Air Force captain, told the Baltimore Sun that the ban was “another example of how archaic, senile old men react in a modern world that has passed them by.”
John Smith, nursing his hamstring, talked briefly to reporters about his teammates’ expulsion: “I don’t even feel that my thoughts are together to even converse. You catch me at a later time today and I’ll be all right, but not right now…I’m very upset right now…We Black people don’t have much now. At least we can run. We can’t even run now.”
The athletic community and the nation at large continues to debate Simone Biles’ decision and the larger right of athletes to stage forms of protest and self-expression at the Olympics. Through it all, the tragedy, racial pain, and cutting cultural divides that surrounded Matthews and Collett’s act of defiance resound in Tokyo.
Much of the context for this piece came from NBC Sports reporter Tim Layden’s wonderful February historical essay on Matthews and Collett’s protest.
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