FFifty years ago this week, two African-American athletes, Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett, won gold and silver respectively in the 400m at the Munich Olympics. At presentation of medals they threw themselves into the jaws of history.
During the US national anthem, the athletes shared the top step 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 on the American flag and chatted casually, looking indifferent. Matthews rubbed his chin thoughtfully before crossing his arms. Collett stood barefoot, jacket open with hands on hips. As they left, Matthews twirled his medal on his finger as Collett raised a clenched fist in the air.
The response from the International Olympic Committee was dripping with venom. In a letter to the US Olympic Committee, IOC President Avery Brundage excoriated the “disgusting presentation” of the athletes before issuing a lifetime ban from the Olympics. The IOC allowed Matthews and Collett to retain their medals, but Brundage warned that: “If such a performance were to occur in the future…the medals will be stripped from the athletes in question.”
It is high time for the IOC to right its historical wrong and apologize to Matthews, Collett and their families for the draconian punishment meted out at the time by the mighty Olympians.
Harry Edwardscivil rights stalwart and sports sociologist at San Jose State University, told me, “It’s never too late to apologize and honor people who not only tried to reflect the ideals Olympics, but to live them, to be ready to sacrifice, to project and to concretize the ideals of the Olympic movement.
Brian Lewis, the president of the Caribbean Association of National Olympic Committees, went further. He told me that “athletes should have the Olympic Order», the IOC’s highest distinction awarded to people who have inspired the Olympic spirit. Lewis called the IOC’s treatment of Matthews and Collett a “travesty and an injustice”, adding that the ban “should be reversed”.
The lifetime expulsion from the Olympics was extreme. But what in 1972 was a drastic punishment now looks more like a blatantly racist double standard. After all, just days before Matthews and Collett stepped in, middle-distance runner Dave Wottle inadvertently worn his hat on the medal stand after winning the 800m race. Wottle, who is white, was not reprimanded by the IOC. Matthews was 24 at the time and Collett was only 21, they had the potential to win more medals without the ban.
When I asked Edwards why he thought the IOC imposed such a severe sanction, he replied: “The whole history of the Olympic movement is plagued by anti-Semitism and racism.” The IOC has “always fought against any type of protest or demonstration which tends to highlight and challenge racist activities or actions”.
In the 1960s, Brundage was nicknamed “Avery slaveryfor his anti-black racism. When Edwards teamed up with top athletes to create the Olympic Project for Human Rights in 1967, their demands included the “removal of anti-Semitic and anti-black figure Avery Brundage from his post as president of the International Olympic Committee” and the “reduced participation of all-white teams and individuals from the Union of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia at all United States Olympic sporting events.
Admittedly, 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 Olympic Park in Munich was built a few miles from the site of the Dachau concentration camp, and then, brutally, Jewish blood was shed again on German soil when Black September, a Palestinian terrorist group, took hostage many members of the Israeli Olympic delegation. In the end, 11 Israeli coaches and athletes were killed, along with five Palestinian activists and a German policeman.
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 mistook the horrific attack for a successful campaign to prevent the Rhodesian Olympic team from competing in the Berlin Games due to the country’s racist policies. Under pressure from many African nations, black athletes and their allies, the IOC took of his invitation to Rhodesia on the eve of the Games. “The Games of the XX Olympiad were subjected to two savage attacks,” said Brundage. “We have lost the Rhodesian battle against naked political blackmail.”
Two days after the “Munich massacre”, in this tense and politicized context, Matthews and Collett won their medals and climbed on the podium.
In his memoirs, Matthews wrote: “For me, not standing at attention meant I was not going with an agenda dictated by number one: those John Wayne guys – my country rightly or wrongly.” Although the athletes suggested they weren’t leading a protest – much like Wottle when he accidentally wore his cap at the medal stand – both expressed displeasure with the way black people were being treated in the United States. . Collett said of the national anthem, “I couldn’t just sit there and sing the lyrics because I don’t believe they’re true. I wish they were. I think we have the potential to have a beautiful country, but I don’t think we do.
Matthews and Collett slipped silently through the folds of history. This stands in stark contrast to the unforgettable demonstration at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, when John Carlos and Tommie Smith stood atop the medals stand and pointed their black-gloved fists skyward in protest against injustice. Although both athletes experienced significant struggles as a result of their action, they are widely celebrated today. Barack Obama honored them at the White House. In 2019 they were inducted in the United States Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame. Even the official Olympic Channel rented Carlos and Smith as “legends”, calling their act of dissent “one of the most iconic moments in the history of the modern Olympics”.
Regarding Matthews and Collett’s action, Edwards pointed out that the timing of the protest may be more important than the message. He noted that because social movements were on the wane 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 reporters at the time, especially because so few of them were African American.
Although Collett deceased in 2010 and Matthews is famous for avoid the press and without looking back, the 50th anniversary of their medal stand action is the perfect time for the IOC to express regret and make amends.