by Denis Fernando, drummer London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony and anti‑racist activist
From Unity, anti-racist and anti-fascist magazine July-August 2016, issue 16. Email UAF to ask for printed copies firstname.lastname@example.org
The Olympics have historically played an important role in both reflecting and advancing the changing times. This key sporting event provides a unique moment where the whole world is watching.
On a number of occasions the Games have awarded iconic stature to those on the right side of history with a power that endures beyond sporting achievement. We remember some such moments on these pages. I was lucky enough to be one of the volunteers when film director Danny Boyle put on the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympic Games.
This ceremony wowed audiences around the world, for the simple reason that Boyle’s creative team held up a mirror to our society with diversity at its core.
I was a “Pandemonium drummer”, the heartbeat of the changing scenery during the Industrial Revolution sequence. We represented the workers of the time, whose efforts and toil paved the way for modern society. The ceremony also celebrated the contribution of migrants who came from the Caribbean on the Empire Windrush, the Suffragettes whose protests heralded women’s equality, and the NHS. At the heart of every section was diversity with people from around the country and around the world taking part.
When the racist English Defence League marched in Walthamstow in East London at the end of that heady summer, I was joined by fellow drummers at a Unite Against Fascism demonstration rejecting their division. The EDL was completely at odds with the international spirit of coming together represented by the Olympics and the Paralympics.
London can be proud of both games, particularly of hosting the most successful Paralympic games so far.
Muhammad Ali—whose loss was felt around the world—first rose to prominence as Olympic boxer Cassius Clay.
He changed his name when he joined the Nation of Islam—rejecting the “slave name” that his family was given from the family that had “owned” them.
When he returned to the US with his gold medal a restaurant in his hometown, Louisville, still refused to serve him because they saw him as a black man not an American champion. This is a reminder that the racist system of oppression discriminates against black people regardless of status.
Ali was at the forefront of the big changes of the time, particularly on war, racism and religion. Perhaps his most iconic act came when he refused to be drafted into the US army for the Vietnam War. For this he was stripped of his boxing titles and banned from leaving the country. He famously said, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me ‘nigger’.
“I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.”
Ali inspired because he defied the injustice of the times and defined the changes that were to come. As a Muslim, anti-racist, anti-war man born in the segregation era, he overcame adversities to be revered the world over.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos
Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medallists in the 200m at Mexico 1968, stood with their heads bowed and a black-gloved hand raised as the American National Anthem played during the medal ceremony.
Smith said he had raised his right fist to represent black power in America, while Carlos raised his left fist to represent black unity. Together they formed an arch of unity and power. The black scarf represented black pride and the black socks with no shoes stood for black poverty.
Smith said, “If I win I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad then they would say ‘a Negro’ We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
As they left the podium they were booed by many in the crowd and within hours their actions were condemned by the International Olympic Committee, yet the “Black Power Salute” protest has become one of Olympics’ most iconic moments.
Against the exclusion of women
Women were barred from taking part in the first modern Olympics in 1896 and it wasn’t until the Amsterdam Games in 1928 that women competed in the core track and field events.
This change came after women—organised by French rower Alice Milliat—set up an alternative Women’s World Games which proved that women could take part in such sports. Four of these took place between 1922 and 1934.
It wasn’t until 1991 that any new sport seeking to join the Olympics had to have women’s competitions. At the 1996 Atlanta Games there were still 26 countries that sent no women to compete.
But, with the addition of women’s boxing, the 2012 Games in London were the first in which women competed in all the sports on the programme and 44% of the participants were women.
Adolf Hitler planned to use the Berlin Olympics in 1936 to “prove” the superiority of the Aryan master race to the world.
He would showcase Nazi politics to the world. This ideology was the basis for their attempted mass annihilation of Jewish people. Roma, LGBT+, Black, Disabled communities and others were also their victims.
Black American athlete Jesse Owens defied the Nazis, sealing his place in Olympic history by becoming the most successful athlete of the 1936 Games. Owens also became the first American to win four track and field gold medals at a single Olympics (100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump), a record that stood unbroken for 48 years.
Hitler apparently changed his tune after Owens’ victories, now saying black people were better because they were “primitive”. But, however he wriggled the humiliation stung.