FFifty years ago this week, two African-American athletes, Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett, won gold and silver respectively in the 400 meters at the Munich Olympics. In the medal ceremony they threw themselves into the jaws of history.
During the US national anthem, the athletes shared the highest level of the podium, which would normally have been reserved for Matthews alone as the winner, an act of unity that broke Olympic protocol. They turned their backs away from the American flag and chatted casually, seeming uninterested. Matthews rubbed his chin thoughtfully before folding his arms. Collett was barefoot, his jacket open, his hands on his hips. As they parted, Matthews twirled her medal on his finger, while Collett raised a clenched fist in the air.
The response from the International Olympic Committee dripped with poison. In a letter to the United States Olympic Committee, IOC President Avery Brundage excoriated the “disgusting display” of the athletes before issuing a lifetime ban from the Olympics. The IOC allowed Matthews and Collett to keep their medals, but Brundage warned that: “Should such a performance occur in the future… medals will be denied to the athletes in question.”
It is high time the IOC corrected its historic mistake and apologized to Matthews, Collett and their families for the draconian punishment meted out by mighty Olympians at the time.
harry edwardsthe civil rights stalwart and sports sociologist at San Jose State University, told me: “It is never too late to apologize and honor the people who not only tried to reflect the Olympic ideals, but also to live up to them, to be willing to sacrifice, project and make the ideals of the Olympic movement a reality”.
brian lewis, the president of the Caribbean Association of National Olympic Committees, went further. He told me that “athletes should be given the Olympic Order”, the highest honor of the IOC awarded to people who have encouraged the Olympic spirit. Lewis called the IOC’s treatment of Matthews and Collett “a travesty and an injustice”, adding that the ban “should be overturned”.
The expulsion for life from the Olympics was extreme. But what in 1972 was a drastic sanction today seems more like a blatantly racist double standard. After all, just days before Matthews and Collett got into action, middle-distance runner Dave Wottle inadvertently wearing his hat on the podium after winning the 800m race. Wottle, who is white, was not reprimanded by the IOC. Matthews was 24 at the time and Collett only 21, they had the potential to win more medals were it not for the ban.
When I asked Edwards why he thought the IOC issued such a harsh sanction, he said: “The entire history of the Olympic movement is riddled with anti-Semitism and racism.” The IOC “has always combated any type of protest or demonstration that tends to highlight and challenge racist activities or actions.”
In the 1960s, Brundage was nicknamed “avery bondage” for his anti-black racism. When Edwards teamed up with high-profile athletes to create the Olympic Project for Human Rights in 1967, their demands included the “removal of anti-Semitic and anti-Black personality Avery Brundage from his post as president of the International Olympic Committee” and the “reduction of the participation of all-white teams and individuals from the Union of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia in all United States Olympic athletic events.”
To be sure, the IOC’s decision to ban Matthews and Collett for life came in the eye of a political hurricane. The Munich Olympics were meant to erase painful memories of the 1936 Berlin Games, when Adolf Hitler and the Nazis used the event to spread white supremacist propaganda. But the Munich Olympic Park was built just a few miles from the site of the Dachau concentration camp and then, brutally, Jewish blood was spilled once again on German soil when Black September, a Palestinian terror group, took numerous members hostage. of the Israeli Olympic delegation. In the end, 11 Israeli coaches and athletes were killed, as were five Palestinian militants and a German police officer.
Avery Brundage insisted that “the games must go on.” And after a break of 24 hours and nine minutes, they did. In Brundage’s official statement, he coupled the horrific attack with a successful campaign to prevent the Rhodesian Olympic team from participating in the Berlin Games due to the country’s racist policies. Under pressure from numerous African nations, black athletes and their allies, the IOC he retired his invitation to Rhodesia on the eve of the Games. “The Games of the XX Olympiad have been the subject of two savage attacks,” Brundage said. “We lost Rhodesia’s battle against naked political blackmail.”
Two days after the “Munich massacre”, in the midst of this politicized and tense context of piano strings, Matthews and Collett won their medals and took the podium.
In his memories, Matthews wrote, “For me, not standing firm meant I wasn’t following a program dictated by Number One: Those John Wayne Guys: My Country, Right or Wrong.” Although the athletes suggested they were not holding a protest, like Wottle when he accidentally wore his cap on the medal podium, both expressed dissatisfaction with the way black people were treated in the US. Collett said of the national anthem: “I couldn’t stand there and sing the words because I don’t think it’s true. I wish they were. I think we have the potential to have a beautiful country, but I don’t think we have it.”
Matthews and Collett have quietly slipped into the folds of history. This is in stark contrast to the unforgettable protest at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics when John Carlos and Tommie Smith stood atop the podium and thrust their black-gloved fists skyward to protest injustice. Although both athletes experienced significant fights as a result of his action, they are widely celebrated today. Barack Obama honored them at the White House. In 2019, they were installed to the US Olympic and Paralympic Games Hall of Fame. Even the official Olympic Channel praised Carlos and Smith as “legends”, calling their act of dissent “one of the most iconic moments in modern Olympics history”.
When it comes to the action of Matthews and Collett, Edwards stressed that the timing of the protest may be more important than the message. He noted that because social movements were in decline in 1972 and a racial backlash was in full force, “there was no larger context for the protest that they could use to frame what they were doing,” making their act of dissent largely unreadable to journalists of the time, especially since so few of them were African-American.
although collet he died in 2010 and Matthews is famous for avoiding the press and without looking back, the 50th anniversary of their medal action is the perfect time for the IOC to express its regret and make amends.