From USASwimming.org, by Mike Gustafson:
“This is the exact reason… you will never be an Olympic swimmer. Whether it’s a public pool or a private pool, if you can’t even get in the water, then you better believe that this is done before it even starts.” – Excerpt from “The John Carlos Story”
Mexico City, 1968. Two young, talented black men walk to the medal podium. It is after the final of the 200 meter dash. These men wear “USA” on their warm-up jackets. One has just won the Olympic gold medal; the other has won the bronze. Together they stand. They wear no shoes – only black socks. Together, they raise two black-gloved, clenched fists to the sky.
“People called it a ‘black power salute,” John Carlos recently told the Seattle Times. “It wasn’t a black thing. It was for human rights.”
Over 40 years ago, Tommie Smith and John Carlos ignited one of the most polarizing moments of Olympics history when they made a political statement on top of the medal podium at the Mexico City Olympics. The two black USA track runners were immediately banned from the Olympic Village and suspended from the United States Olympic Team. Stricter rules were put in place against “political statements” at the Olympics. Now, over 40 years later, one of them talks about his experiences.
John Carlos, the bronze medal finisher in that ‘68 race, has written an autobiography, with the help of sportswriter Dave Zirin. It is called “The John Carlos Story.” He’s been traveling around the nation, giving book readings, discussions, and question/answer segments. But what’s interesting, at least to me, about Carlos’ story is that he originally wanted to be a swimmer.
“I was going to go to the Olympics,” Carlos writes in the book. “I was going to be the first black to represent America in the water.”
Carlos writes in detail what it was like as a young budding swimmer growing up in the tough streets of Harlem during the late 1950s and 1960s. Carlos was pretty good, too. He won a “citywide” race in the 200 freestyle. He desired to swim across the English Channel. He would ask his father to research how to swim the English Channel – though his father couldn’t swim himself – and Carlos would imagine himself crossing that great body of water.
“My thing was swimming,” Carlos told the North County Times during a book tour. “Unfortunately, the social climate in America was not ready for a black swimmer.”
Carlos’ father told him that swimming would have “more obstacles than opportunities” in the United States. Carlos would run around the neighborhood and tell people, “Johnny Carlos is going to go to the Olympics as a swimmer!” But there was limited pool space at public pools, and there was little or no access to private pools. A nearby public facility, the Colonial Pool, was too crowded and not a viable place to train, according to Carlos. “It was only open in the summer and you would have kids jumping in with their jeans on or wearing sneakers,” Carlos writes.
Carlos’ father discouraged the development of his son’s swimming career. Carlos couldn’t gain access to private clubs because blacks weren’t allowed to join. His father said, “This is why they haven’t had any black swimmers up until this point to represent America because they don’t allow the blacks to join the private clubs. And you have to be involved in a club that’s connected to Olympic people in order to train.”
So Carlos, without seeing any viable option for continuing his training, looked to other sports to accomplish his Olympic dream – including boxing. Eventually he found track, where he went on to become the bronze medal winner in ’68. The rest, as you know, is history.
What’s interesting is that Carlos had the talent to succeed in many sports. I wonder how many other gifted swimmers quit because of similar obstacles. We know John Carlos’ story because of what he was able to accomplish away from the pool. Because he was a track superstar. He was able to find another sport to fulfill his passion.
But I wonder how fast he would have been had he been able to swim.
We are in a better situation now than in the 1950s and 1960s. I live near Harlem today, the same city where John Carlos grew up. Of course, there is no formal segregation. But there are limited pools. There is limited access. Clubs and private pools are expensive to join. The best, most suitable competitive swimming public pools now – at least in Brooklyn – are only open in the summer. There is no indoor 50m aquatic facility anywhere in Brooklyn, a New York City borough the size of Chicago.
Of course, many things have changed. But some things haven’t changed enough.
It’s been over 40 years since John Carlos raised his black-gloved fist on the podium at the 1968 Olympics. It isn’t something a lot of people agreed with. But through his story -- growing up as a kid in Harlem and not being able to follow his initial dreams of competitive swimming – we at least have an insight into the whys, hows, and reasons involving his polarizing, political Olympic statement from a man who originally wanted to swim.