The 11th IAAF World Championships in Athletics (or Track and Field as I would call it) are going on in Osaka this week, and because the games are being staged somewhat unusually in the morning and evening — to avoid the summer heat — I’ve been able to follow them both before and after work. How convenient! It’s about the only bright spot to a season that is otherwise unremittingly oppressive.
I’ve long been a casual fan of track and field, probably due to my father’s influence. We often would watch not only the Olympics together but also many other track events on ABC’s Wide World of Sports when I was a kid. Track and Field was one of his “beats” as a sports writer for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin so I used to accompany him to the high school track and field championships. I can still remember his familiar refrains about the sport, like “No one will ever beat Beamon‘s record” (in the long jump — it was eventually broken, in 1991 by Mike Powell).
In addition to Beamon, who set his record at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, I can remember him educating me about another 1968 winner, 200-meter sprinter Tommie Smith. My father would always extol Smith’s world-record breaking performance in that Olympic’s 200-meter event, but he would also explain about what came after, Smith’s and bronze-medal winner John Carlos’ black-gloved salute, on the podium. I don’t think it would be hyperbole to say my father admired both deeds. Of course many people, when it happened in 1968, didn’t view it the same way, certainly not the International Olympic Committee itself, which stripped Smith and Carlos of their medals and banned the athletes from the Olympics for life. A spokesman for the IOC said that the act was “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.”
The other night, American Tyson Gay won the men’s 200-meter event at these Osaka championships. Like every other winner in every other event from every other country, he went over to the stands where someone, probably his coach, tossed him his country’s flag and he paraded around the track with his red, white, and blue cape. I suppose this has gone on for years but I hadn’t realized until now that it had become de rigeur. The uniformity of the gesture tends to even out the patriotism field a little, which I suppose is a good thing, but it also makes the gesture essentially empty, ritualized behavior. It seems to me that many of these flags are being produced from shrink-wrapped packages at the bottom of the coach’s bag. Perhaps by Beijing 2008, the athletes will be tucking them into their jockstraps and sports bras to save time. Perhaps by London 2012, those flags will be sponsored by Nike and Nikon.
The black fist is a meaningless symbol. When you open it, you have nothing but fingers — weak, empty fingers. The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside. There’s where the power lies.
In Owens’ day, his skin color precluded him from cashing in on his achievements. For Smith and Carlos, their bold gesture precluded them from even taking their “silverware” home, to say nothing of cashing in. For today’s generation of Black athletes like Gay and Allyson Felix, you can’t help but get the feeling that they’ve got their hands on Owens’ fistful of dollars, but that The Power still lies elsewhere.