The 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City were charged with political expression.

During the tumultuous 1960s, 1968 stands out as a turning point, with new modes of political action actively courting television news media.

On Jan. 31, 1968, Communist forces launched the Tet Offensive, giving American TV viewers a stark understanding of the brutality of the Vietnam War. Three months later, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. produced major riots in more than 60 U.S. cities, many of them televised. In June, Robert Kennedy's death threw the Democratic Party into disarray. As police used tear gas and clubs to subdue demonstrators at the August convention, young activists chanted into network cameras the cry of politics in a mass media age: The Whole World is Watching.

Certainly much of the world was watching a couple of months later when American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, with gold and bronze medals hanging around their respective necks, used their moment at the Mexico City Olympic Games to speak out against racial oppression. Their action demonstrated not just the importance of television to political movements, but the viability of sports—perhaps especially the Olympics—as an arena for political expression.

By the late '60s, sport was big business in America, one in which whites served as kingmakers, blacks as gladiators. With no change on the horizon, the grievances of African-American athletes multiplied in proportion to their visibility on the national scene. By 1968, one-fourth of all Major League Baseball players, one-third of all professional football players, and more than half of professional basketball players were black. Representation in the managerial ranks, however, was sorely lacking. Blacks were stereotyped as fleet of foot but slow of mind, thought to fold under pressure and lack the ability to motivate white players.

In 1967, the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPRH) formed to address racial inequality in sports. By linking the Olympics with institutionalized racism, the group drew considerable attention to the Black Power initiative to boycott the Mexico City Olympics. This threat posed serious consequences—black athletes had won 34 percent of all U.S. track and field medals in the postwar period and were predicted to win more than half of the potential medals in 1968.

While the OPHR garnered a lot of attention leading up to the games, in the end athletes decided it was better to go to Mexico and protest individually, capitalizing on the 400 million people who would be watching around the world during the first major network broadcast of the Olympic Games.

The decision led to one of the most iconic, if controversial, images in American sports. Tommie Smith had just shattered the world record in the 200-meter dash, with teammate John Carlos in third position. As the two took their places on the podium, they had a wide collection of symbols to stake their political claim: they were barefoot to symbolize poverty; they wore black scarves to symbolize pride; they bowed their heads in remembrance of fallen heroes; and over their heads they raised black-gloved fists to symbolize power.

Part of the protest's effectiveness lay in the fact that it was given as "The Star-Spangled Banner" was being played and the American flag was being raised. As TV commentators and those in the stands became hushed out of respect for the anthem, they were forced to remain a silent, captive audience to the protest unfolding before them.

Less than 24 hours later, the Olympic administration suspended the duo and forced them out of the Olympics. With the suspension, the Black Power protest became front page news and a debate raged over whether the protest was an action of empowerment or one of disrespect.

Such attention came at a high personal cost for the protesters. Smith lost a professional football contract and, despite exemplary scholarship and ROTC service, was declared unfit to serve in Vietnam. The entire track team—coached by the legendary Payton Jordan and widely considered the best team in track and field history—lost lucrative endorsement deals. No one was invited to the White House, even though the team had won twelve gold medals.

The Americans weren't alone in bringing politics into the '68 Games. Peter Norman, the Australian sprinter who came second in the 200-meter race, and Martin Jellinghaus, a member of the German bronze medal-winning 1600-meter relay team, also wore Olympic Project for Human Rights buttons at the games to show support for the suspended American sprinters. Czechoslovakian gymnast Vera Cáslavská protested the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia by deliberately looking away when the USSR national anthem was played, a move that effectively ended her career.

While many today still believe that politics should play no role in sports, the International Olympic Committee itself has been forced to make controversial decisions in its role as a governing body—it censured Afghanistan when the Taliban took power, threw out South Africa during its apartheid era, and currently allows delegations from Puerto Rico, East Timor, and Palestine. By awarding Beijing the 2008 Summer Games, it ensured millions would follow the turbulent torch relay, the furor over Tibet and Darfur, the debates over open media coverage, pollution and the Chinese government's constant worries about dissenters bringing the games to a halt.

Regardless of what takes place in China, as the events of Mexico City demonstrated some fifty years ago, athletes don't lose their belief systems the moment they take the field, and what happens at an international athletic competition should never be underemphasized, simplified, or dismissed merely as "just sports." While there are many reasons to be critical of the Games—doping, corporatism, media saturation, and so on—the inevitable intertwining of politics and sports on the world stage is one of the reasons that the Olympics matter. The whole world is still watching.

Originally published August 2008

Amy Bass is a professor of history at the College of New Rochelle. Her research interests include African-American history; modern American culture, with a particular focus on sports; identity politics; and historical theory and methodology. Her first book, Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympic Games and the Making of the Black Athlete, is considered a standard-bearer for those interested in writing about sports from a cultural perspective. She edits her own series, “Sporting,” for Temple University Press, and has served as senior research supervisor for NBC Olympic Sports since 1996, winning at Emmy Award for her work at the London Olympics in 2012.