Boycott questions: 1968 vs. 2008

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Special to The Times

In 1968 I was a 20-year-old college junior whose basketball success had made me famous. I’d been honored as most outstanding player in the NCAA tournament, named the U.S. Basketball Writers Assn. player of the year, and played the “game of the century” against the Houston Cougars at the Astrodome. So it wasn’t surprising that I was invited to try out for the Olympic basketball team to represent the U.S. in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Any other year I would have been proud and elated at the prospect of playing for my country against the world’s elite athletes.

But 1968 wasn’t like any other year.

The Vietnam War had divided the country more violently than any time since the Civil War. The nightly news clips of U.S. planes bombing the Vietnam jungle were paralleled by clips of angry, sometimes bloody, clashes between war protesters and war supporters.

Violence was almost as rampant at home. First Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, then Robert Kennedy. The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago featured thousands of anti-war protesters who were met with police violence.


In the midst of all this international and domestic turmoil, the Olympic Games represented, to some, an opportunity to bring people of all nationalities together, maybe heal some wounds. To others it represented the usual hypocrisy of ignoring the political problems in the name of entertainment and profit.

And there I was in the middle. Twenty years old. The age of many of the soldiers who were fighting and dying in Vietnam. Some of them were my childhood friends. Because of my visibility as an athlete, whatever I chose to do would have international reverberations.

At that time sociology professor Dr. Harry Edwards, only in his mid-20s, urged black athletes to boycott the Olympic Games in Mexico City.

“For years we have participated in the Olympic Games, carrying the United States on our backs with our victories, and race relations are now worse than ever,” he told the New York Times Magazine in 1968. “We’re not trying to lose the Olympics for the Americans. What happens to them is immaterial. . . . But it’s time for the black people to stand up as men and women and refuse to be utilized as performing animals for a little extra dog food.”

Harsh words to many white sports fans and self-proclaimed patriots alike, but for African American athletes, there was a clear ring of truth behind the rhetoric. Clearly the Olympic Games and the Vietnam War were parallel competitions. In each, blacks were supposed to go overseas to drive themselves as hard as they could in order to bring glory to their country, only to return home and still be treated as second-class citizens.

All that gave me a lot to think about. Then baseball-pro-turned-broadcaster Joe Garagiola interviewed me on the “Today Show” and for the first time I spoke publicly about my concerns and frustrations regarding the direction the country was taking politically. Garagiola was clearly annoyed that I would even consider boycotting the Olympics. My response was that for black Americans life in this country was still something that included racially based discrimination in every area of life.


Eventually the idea of a boycott was abandoned because Edwards was unable to attract a critical number of athletes to the idea. In my case, I had a summer job with the city of New York that paid me very well and enabled me to attend school without having to worry about financial matters.

However, that October at the Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, after winning first and third in the 200-meter dash, raised their black-gloved fists from the medal podium and bowed their heads during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This image captured the spirit of the times: Whites were outraged, blacks felt some rush of pride. Ironically, their gesture was a compromise; dozens of black American athletes had debated boycotting the Games but decided that this gesture would speak louder than not showing up. Edwards was credited with suggesting this compromise.

Here we are 40 years later and we are once again about to send our young athletes overseas to compete in games while we send our young soldiers overseas to fight in war. And, as before, there is a social agenda attached to the Olympic Games.

Should we boycott the Olympic Games to protest China’s arrogant human rights performance, its political imperialism, its shoddy exports that recently have left some Americans ill or dead?

The answer is no. While it may seem disingenuous to be playing games with countries that aim weapons at us, the same claim can be made about us by many other countries.

I am of a mind that the actions of Smith and Carlos made a difference in 1968. However, this Olympics is an entirely different situation that requires different tactics to achieve a satisfactory resolution. Instead of turning our backs, we need to continue a dialogue with the Chinese.


The more we talk with each other, the more we understand each other and can reach compromises that will benefit the lives of those we are trying to help. Jackie Robinson once said that the great thing about athletics is that “you learn to act democracy, not just talk it.” That’s what our athletes will demonstrate to the 1 billion Chinese who may be watching.

A second means of influencing the Chinese is through globalization, in which we share products, entertainment, and culture with others -- and they share theirs with us -- in order to break down the barriers that make us fear each other’s differences.

The NBA is a good model for globalization. The Chinese Basketball Assn. permits only two foreign-born players per team. But the NBA’s policy of choosing the best players, regardless of nationality, has not only kicked up the level of play, but it’s made basketball more popular on an international level than ever. The fact that the NBA brought in China’s Yao Ming, Wang Zhizhi, Yi Jianlian, Sun Yue and Mengke Bateer has increased NBA fans in China -- and when the Chinese people are exposed to America through basketball, we become more human to them, less a threat.

So, let’s not just pick up our ball and stay home. We have many more options -- political, commercial, and cultural -- to express our displeasure with China’s policies. The more we have in common, the more impact we can make. It’s all about building trust.


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, is the author of six books, including “On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance.”