In the hyper-competitive world of high-stakes athletics, an injection of politics or social justice can inspire annoyance or rousing support; but it always starts a conversation. For over a century, these athletes have used the field, court, or track to express a broader view of how the world ought to be.
The Irish Olympian won gold and silver medals in the 1906 games. O’Connor was registered with Great Britain since Ireland lacked an Olympic Committee. At the medals ceremony, the Union Jack was raised, so O’Connor climbed a flagpole and hoisted an Irish flag while his teammate fought off guards below. His act of resistance was likely the first time an Irish flag was seen at an international sporting event.
1960 Olympics “Under Protest”
Taiwanese Olympic athletes marched into Rome’s 1960 opening ceremony behind a sign reading “UNDER PROTEST.” The team was vexed at their committee’s decision to enter the games under the island’s western name, Formosa, instead of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s preferred designation, Republic of China.
Vietnam War, 1967
In 1967, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his world heavyweight title and had his boxing license suspended after he refused to step forward at his scheduled induction into the military. Ali said, “No, I will not go 10,000 miles from here to help murder and kill another poor people simply to continue the domination of white slave-masters over the darker people of the earth.” After an appeal to the Supreme Court, Ali’s conviction was dropped by a unanimous decision in 1971.
John Carlos/Tommie Smith
Mexico City’s 1968 games came in the midst of a tumultuous year for the U.S. (assassinations, Vietnam War protests, and constant racial tensions). After black athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith earned bronze and gold medals, respectively, for the 200-meter dash, they used their medals ceremony as a platform for what was perhaps the most iconic sports protest in history. As the U.S. national anthem played, the runners bowed their heads and raised their gloved fists into the air. The San Jose State University students returned from the Olympics to myriad criticism and even death threats over their gesture, perceived to be one of black power radicalism. Smith described it as “a cry for freedom and for human rights,” saying, “we had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.”
“Black 14,” 1969
Football coach Lloyd Eaton dismissed 14 African American players from the University of Wyoming team when they asked to wear black armbands during their upcoming game against Brigham Young University. The players planned the act of solidarity after BYU students had allegedly uttered racial slurs at them in past matches. They had also learned of the Mormon policy of disallowing African Americans from priesthood. After the “Black 14” were kicked off UW’s football team, a nationwide press controversy ensued. The previously undefeated team lost its last four games in the season, and Coach Eaton was fired the next year.
During the Denver Nuggets’ 1996 season, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a Muslim, refused to stand for the pregame national anthem, saying, “My duty is to my creator, not to nationalistic ideology.” Abdul-Rauf was immediately suspended, but later allowed to play when he compromised that he would pray with his hands over his face while standing for the anthem. The player was booed routinely by patrons (72 percent of people in Denver disagreed with Abdul-Rauf, according to a poll). Two Denver radio deejays even faced charges for entering a mosque in Abdul-Rauf jerseys playing the national anthem with instruments as a stunt.
God Bless America, 2004
After growing up in Puerto Rico, where the U.S. Navy used the island of Vieques as a weapons testing ground for 60 years, Toronto Blue Jay Carlos Delgado was decidedly skeptical of U.S. military occupation. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Delgado refused to stand for the routine seventh inning stretch rendition of “God Bless America.” His antiwar protest went largely unnoticed since he remained in the dugout during the song. Delgado saw little backlash even though the Iraq War was overwhelmingly popular among Americans at the time. It was even, apparently, popular among Canadians, since the Toronto Skydome played the song at their games until 2004.