Striking gold at the Olympics

1968 Exhibit
The 1968 Exhibit in St. Paul includes a panel with an Olympic torch and other memorabilia, plus the iconic image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who took home the gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter sprint for the U.S. in 1968. Photo by the Minnesota Historical Society

The 23rd Winter Olympic Games kick off in Pyeongchang, South Korea, this February.

But did you know 2018 also marks the 50th anniversary of two previous games — the 1968 Winter Olympic Games and Summer Olympic Games. (It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the two games started alternating on even years.)

February 1968 kicked off the 10th winter games in Grenoble, France, with 35 events and athletes from 37 countries. By comparison, Pyeongchang will have 102 events and more than 80 countries represented.

Minnesota’s stars

It’s probably no surprise that Minnesota boasted a strong contingent of winter athletes in 1968.

The U.S. men’s hockey team was full of Minnesotans, including future North Stars player Lou Nanne and Herb Brooks, who went on to coach the U.S. to win the gold in 1980. Minnesotans also were part of the U.S. ski, figure-skating and speed-skating teams.

The Grenoble games marked a few firsts in Olympic history: It was the first Winter Games ever broadcast in color and the first time doping testing was required for athletes.

The International Olympic Committee is still dealing with the latter issue today, as evidenced by Russia’s ban from the 2018 Winter Games for widespread doping.

At the games’ end in 1968, the U.S. medal count was disappointing. Figure skater Peggy Fleming brought home the only gold medal. But Minnesotan Mary Meyers enjoyed a three-way tie for silver with two of her U.S. speed-skating teammates in the women’s 500-meter event.

Protest in Mexico

In October, the U.S. did much better in the Summer Games in Mexico City, winning 45 gold medals and 107 medals overall. More than 5,000 athletes from 112 countries competed.

Unlike in the Winter Games, Minnesotans were not heavily represented in any one sport. However, the Minnesota Training Center sent three wrestlers to compete, and local athletes also represented the U.S. in sports such as rowing and marathon running.

Even now, 50 years later, one of the most memorable moments is the men’s 200-meter sprint medal ceremony. U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos took home the gold and bronze medals. As they stood on the podium, they each bowed their heads and raised a closed, black-gloved fist, a Black Power symbol, as the national anthem played.

They were protesting against the racial inequality going on the U.S., where there had been division over the Civil Rights movement throughout the 1960s. The duo also took off their shoes and wore scarves and beads as symbols of their protest against lynching and poverty among African Americans.

Australian silver medalist Peter Norman showed his solidarity by wearing a badge for the Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organization against racism in sports.

“We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country,” Smith later said in an HBO documentary.

An iconic scene

The moment was a lightning rod and became front-page news. While some people saw the men as heroes, many were outraged by their behavior, not unlike the fallout from the recent #takeaknee campaign in the NFL.

Olympic officials ordered Carlos and Smith to leave the Olympic Village.

Norman received no punishment, though his career suffered. Carlos and Smith kept their Olympic medals, but received death threats. The photo of the podium protest is now one of the most famous sports images of all time.

John Carlos’s later career included playing football for the Philadelphia Eagles and working as a school counselor and track-and-field coach. Smith also briefly played for the NFL and became a sociology professor at Oberlin College and Santa Monica College.

Today statues commemorate their iconic protest moment at San Jose State University, the men’s alma mater, and at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.


Learn More

Discover more stories behind the 1968 Olympic Games in The 1968 Exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul through Jan. 21, 2019.

Lauren Peck is a media relations and social media associate for the Minnesota Historical Society.