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Behind the Black Power salute

By Geoff Small
Director, Black Power Salute

(l-r) Australian silver medallist Peter Norman, American winner Tommie Smith and third-placed John Carlos
Smith and Carlos make their stand at the 200m medal ceremony

I jokingly offered my boss a choice of one of my arms when she handed me the director gig on Black Power Salute.

After all, it is not every day a multicultural history-loving sports fan like me gets to work on a project that combines his passions. And not just any old project, either.

Rather, a landmark documentary revisiting one of the most controversial episodes in Olympic history.

Our remit seemed routine enough; produce a 60-minute film about Tommie Smith and John Carlos' infamous "Black Power" salute, as the African-American sprinters received their gold and bronze medals respectively, at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.

Their protest made front page news the world over and produced one of the most iconic poster images of the twentieth century.

As the 40th anniversary of their incendiary act approached, our mission was to find out why they did it.

I came to the project knowing something of Tommie and John's exploits from my college studies, or so I thought.

Cue a plethora of revelations that transformed their monumental act into the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

For starters, it was not a spontaneous gesture - they were members of a militant black student group.

An outfit, moreover, inspired by Muhammad Ali, supported by Dr Martin Luther King, and targeted for extermination by the most powerful man in the Olympic movement, International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage.

Coleman's exclusive interview with Tommie and John the day after their rebellious act is a special moment

Programme director Geoff Small

Even more intriguing, I discovered that not all the players in these supposedly "Black Power" protests were actually black.

Behind the scenes on Tommie and John's campus, sympathetic white students like Linda Huey and Art Simburg actively supported the Olympic Project for Human Rights' cause, which was formed by black athletes in 1967.

Astonishingly, OPHR also found high-profile allies in most of the all-white Harvard eight-man rowing crew.

Prior to representing America at the games, their advocates wrote to every member of the USA Olympic team urging them to consider their black peers' political agenda.

And equally mind-blowing, I discovered that, aided by one of the Harvard rowers, Peter Norman, the white Australian who won the silver medal in the 200m, joined in Tommie and John's memorable victory stand protest.

606:DEBATE
BBC Sport's Peter Scrivener

Everything changed. We now had a cracking untold story to celebrate. But doing it justice meant tracking down a host of characters who had not been on our radar. And it did not help that they were mostly retired and living, well, where?

Our indefatigable assistant producer, Paromita Saha, came up trumps. She bagged interviews with no less than four Olympic Gold medallists, including Tommie.

And then there was Professor Harry Edwards, the architect of Tommie's student group.

At 6ft 8in, the 20 stone-plus, shaven-headed academic cuts an imposing figure. And with an IQ of 186, plus the distinction of having created the sociology of sport, he boasts an intellect to match.

Harry's often comical contribution very much sits at the heart of this compelling protest story.

With our key interviewees in place, the pressure was on to source archive footage to animate their colourful tales.

400m medallists, (l-r) Lee Evans (gold), Larry James (silver), and Ron Freeman (bronze), wore berets to sympathise with Smith and Carlos after they were thrown out of the Olympics
US team-mates wore black berets in support of Smith and Carlos

First stop the BBC's voluminous vaults, where we unearthed Good Morning Mexico, a daily Olympic round-up anchored by the inimitable Frank Bough in London, and featuring classic commentaries by David Coleman in Mexico.

Indeed, Coleman's exclusive interview with Tommie and John the day after their rebellious act is a special moment. But, for me, the jewel is a French film, which provides a priceless anatomy of Tommie's life as a college student, shortly before the Games.

I have never been on a madder shoot. An exercise in the impossible, we somehow racked up 13 locations, across six US states, spanning three time zones, in 12 energy-sapping days.

It was fun, though. Unlike sacrificing all those choice cuts of film that inevitably hit the cutting room floor.

Olympic gold medallist Lee Evans recalling he knew he was a good runner when he was fleeing a shotgun-shooting farmer whose property he was crossing, for example, and Tommie telling Coleman why he chose the victory stand to stage his political stand.

For all that, though, Black Power Salute is an illuminating and entertaining insight into an epoch-making slice of modern history.

Tigerlily Films' Black Power Salute will be televised on BBC Four on Wednesday, 9 July at 2100 BST


see also
Team GB for Beijing
29 Nov 07 |  Team GB
Athletics on the BBC
05 Nov 07 |  Athletics


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