America's summer of racial tension surfaces on road to Rio

'Welcome to Hell' at Rio Olympics

America's hot summer of racial tension, violence and politics has spilled on to the basketball court, the track and the Twitter feeds of some of the country's top sports stars.

Now, as athletes head to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro from Aug. 5-21, will they take the debate over America's racial divide onto the world's biggest global sports stage with them?

What comes to mind is another summer in which sports and race collided spectacularly: in 1968 at the Olympics in Mexico City.

SEE MORE: Everything you need to know about the Summer Olympics

There, two American 200 meters track medalists, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their black-gloved fists and bowed their heads on the podium in support of Black Power, a protest for which Carlos says he has paid dearly.

"As soon as we raised our hands, it's like somebody hit a switch. The mood in the stadium went straight to venom," Carlos wrote in an op-ed on Vox in July.

"Within days, Tommie and I were suspended from the US Olympic team and had to leave Mexico City early."

The violence on America's streets has made many think back to the 1960s, the decade defined by the fight for civil rights.

In July alone, two black men were killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota, and there were two ambushes on police in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana that left eight officers dead.

Some athletes, like women in the WNBA pro basketball league, have shown support for the Black Lives Matter movement that coalesced nationally in 2014 after the police killing of an unarmed teenager in Missouri.

Others like basketball player Carmelo Anthony, a member of the Olympic team, have used their star power to bring together communities and police to discuss racial tension and policing.

"I am so humbled and honored that the women of the WNBA went to such an extent to uplift our message and the cause," said Kofi Ademola, lead organizer for Black Lives Matter in Chicago.

Ademola said he is watching to see if Anthony and other athletes follow the "powerful women from the WNBA" or support the police like some entertainers have or "remain silent and oblivious to everything, as if nothing is going on".

The WNBA initially fined teams for wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts or black warmups last month, but then backtracked after widespread outrage. Tina Charles, who is on the Olympic team, tweeted "I refuse to be silent @WNBA" with a picture of her in a t-shirt emblazoned with #BlackLivesMatter and #Dallas5.

"Appreciate our players expressing themselves on matters important to them," WNBA President Lisa Borders tweeted after she reversed course. "Rescinding imposed fines to show them even more support."


Other athletes have chosen to make more neutral statements about peace and pride in their country.

After winning the 200 meters final in the U.S. Olympic track trials days after the Dallas police killings, Justin Gatlin urged people to take the love in the stadium "and give it to someone you have never loved before. Just go up to them and say I love you for being an American."

In the violence-filled first week of July, Crystal Dunn, a member of the U.S. women's soccer team, tweeted "ANY wrongful death should concern everyone," and noted that she has been getting "a lot of questions lately about how I feel about being a black player on the national team."

"Although I am Black, I am a human first...," she added.

Public opinion appears to be against using the Olympic stage to make statements.

Around two-thirds of Americans want Olympic athletes to keep their political views to themselves in Rio de Janeiro, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Monday.

When asked how the U.S. Olympic Committee would deal with athletes who made statements or protested, a spokesman pointed simply to the Olympic Charter's Rule 50.

That rule discourages participants from using the Games as a platform for protests or "the promotion of political, religious or racial propaganda".

And while the International Olympic Committee says athletes are free to express their opinions, they are advised to only wear official uniforms on the field and at ceremonies.

The place to make a statement might be at one of the Games' last events, the men's basketball gold medal game on Aug. 21. If protesters get sent home, they will not miss much at all.

The 15 greatest Summer Olympic upsets in history:

15 greatest upsets in Summer Olympics history
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15 greatest upsets in Summer Olympics history

15. 1924: Sweden Beats Belgium

Although they did not win the gold medal, the performance of the Sweden soccer team in the 1924 Paris Olympics is still considered one of the greatest upsets in the history of International soccer.

Heading into the Summer Games, the Belgium soccer team were poised to win another gold medal. Coming off a gold at the 1920 Summer Olympics held in their home country, the Belgium team came into their match-up with Sweden as a heavy favorite.

The second round match was played on May 29, 1924 in front of over 8,500 spectators. The Sweden team jumped out to an early lead, as Rudolf Koch scored eight minutes into the contest. The Swedes would not look back, crushing the Belgium team to a score of 8-1. The team got three goals a piece from both Koch and Sven Rydell. Henri Larnoe had the only goal for Belgium.

The Sweden team beat Egypt 5-0 in the quarterfinals, setting the stage for a semifinal match against Switzerland. The Swiss team would beat Sweden 2-1, forcing the Swedes to play for the Bronze medal against the Netherlands.

Sweden would go on to beat the Netherlands for the Bronze, while Switzerland advanced to go for the gold against Uruguay. Uruguay beat the Swiss team 3-0 to win the gold medal, but it was the Sweden team that had the lasting memory of the tournament.

(Photo by Harlingue/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

At the age of 23, Margaret Abbott traveled to France with her mother to study art and music. While in France, she heard about an Olympic golf event in Paris, and she decided to enter along with her mother. What happened next is the stuff of legend.

Abbott was from Chicago, and learned golf from Charles Blair MacDonald and H.J. Whigham, who were a couple of the top American amateurs. She played at Chicago Golf Club, and while she never played in any major tournaments, she did win a few local events, and was considered a top female golfer in Chicago.

The Olympic event was a nine-hole tournament, and Abbott won the gold medal with a score of 47. By winning, Abbott became the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal. It would be the only Olympic medal she would win in her career. Her mother actually finished eighth in the event.

Abbott never really got to grasp her accomplishment, as golf was not declared part of that Olympics until after her death in 1955. However, her feat goes down as one of the greatest upsets in the history of the Summer Games, and her legacy will live on forever. She may have been the first American woman to take home gold, but she paved the way for thousands more to do the same.

(Mike Blake / Reuters)

13. 2000: Hyman beats O’Neill

The 2000 Olympics were hosted by Sydney, Australia, who had some of the best swimmers in the world. The biggest name was Susie O’Neill, who was nicknamed “Madame Butterfly” due to her dominance in the Butterfly. The Aussie had owned her event, the 200m butterfly, and was coming off an incredible performance in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.

She won the gold medal in the 200m butterfly in Atlanta, and several months earlier, in the same Sydney pool, she had broken American Mary T. Meagher’s 20-year world record in the event. Earlier in the week, O’Neill won the gold in the 200m freestyle, setting up one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history.


In lane 6 was American Misty Hyman, who used an underwater dolphin-kick that was seen as a kind of black sheep in the training world. Still, using this technique she was able to shave a second off the world-record in the 100m butterfly the previous winter. However, she was not considered to have any chance of dethroning O’Neill in her friendly waters.

Despite being the slowest off the block, Hyman used her powerful legs to create force off the breakouts, and despite a surge from O’Neill in the final 50m, Hyman was able to hold on and capture the gold medal. It was O’Neill’s first loss in six years. To beat O’Neill in her country, in her event, was nothing short of a miracle.

(Al Bello/Getty Images)

11. 1924: Charlton takes down Borg

One of the best part of the Olympics is the fact that really young athletes can do battle against some of the more seasoned competitors in their sport. In 1924, a 16-year old Australian took down a Swedish legend, capturing the gold medal in one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history.

Arne Borg was an incredible swimmer, and he came in to the 1924 games as the odd-on favorite to win the gold medal in the 1500m freestyle. At the time, he was the best in the world in the event, owning four world records in the 1920s. However, he would have to wait until 1928 to get his gold.

Australian Andrew Charlton, nicknamed “Boy,” was only 16-years old when he headed to Paris for the 1924 Games. The 1500m freestyle final was a seesaw battle between Charlton and Borg, but Charlton sprinted to the finish, beating Borg by 40m and setting a new world record. The win made Charlton a nation icon, and he was eventually enshrined in the Sport Australia Hall of Fame.

The following Olympics, Charlton and Borg faced off yet again, but this time Borg won the gold and Charlton took the silver. Borg set the Olympic record with a time of 19 min 51.8 sec. For Charlton and Borg, their golds in the 1924 and 1928 were the only gold medals they would win in their Olympic careers.

(Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

10. An unknown takes the gold in Seoul

The South American country of Suriname was pretty much unknown as far as the Olympics go, as no athlete from that small country had ever won a medal at the Games. In 1988, Anthony Nesty was one of the best swimmers in the world in the 100m butterfly, and he was out to capture his country’s first medal.

Nesty appeared in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, finishing twenty-first in the event. He would go on to train in Florida for the 1988 Olympics, and came in to the Games fresh off a gold medal in the 100m butterfly in the Pan-American Games in 1987. In order to win the gold in Seoul, he would have to beat favorite, American Matt Biondi.

The field in the 100m butterfly was stacked with talent, as Biondi, Australian Jon Sieben, and German Michael Gross were all phenomenal in the event. In the end, it was Nesty who took the gold, beating Biondi by an incredible 0.01 seconds. It was an improbable win, and gave Suriname its first Olympic medal. With the win, Nesty became only the second black athlete to win a gold medal in a swimming event (Enith Brigitha, 1976).

Nesty’s win gave Suriname its first medal as a country, and after winning the bronze in the 100m butterfly in Barcelona in 1992, Nesty still owns the country’s only Olympic medals.

(Photo by Simon Bruty/Getty Images)

9. 1960: Barefoot runner wins marathon

Nowadays, people spend hundreds of dollars on equipment to make sure they can finish a marathon. In 1960, an Ethiopian runner ran the biggest marathon in the world without even having shoes on, and he actually won the event. It was one of the greatest feats in Olympic history, and an incredible upset.

Abebe Bikila was added to the Ethiopian team at the last minute, as he replace Wami Biratu, who was seriously ill. When he arrived in Paris, Adidas, the shoe sponsor for the Olympics, did not have many shoes left. He could not find ones that were comfortable, so he decided to run without any. Incredibly, he finished in 2 hours and 15 seconds, becoming the first Sub-Saharan African to win a gold medal.

In 1964, Bikila became the first person to win two gold medals in the event, as he won in Tokyo despite not being expected to compete. In fact, Bikila finished the marathon in a new Olympic record time of 2:12:11.2, which was over four minutes faster than the silver medal winner, Basil Heatley of Great Britain. This time, however, Bikila wore shoes and socks.

Bikila ran again in 1968 in Mexico City, but he injured his right knee at the 17km mark. His running partner, Mamo Wolde won the event.

(Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

ATHENS, Greece: Britain's Mark Lewis-Francis celebrates after his team won the men's 4X100m final, 28 August 2004, during the Olympic Games athletics competitions at the Olympic Stadium in Athens. The US team took silver while Nigeria won bronze. AFP PHOTO/ROBERTO SCHMIDT (Photo credit should read ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

6. 1952: Runner wins marathon on a whim

It is not often that a runner can decide to run a marathon on a whim, and then go on to upset the entire field who trained for it. That was the case in the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, when Emil Zátopek showed up for the race a few minutes before it was to begin. Zátopek would end up lapping the field, which included favorite, Jim Peters of Great Britain. Peters has been called the greatest marathon runner of all-time, but on this day, it was Zátopek who would lead the field.

To make this story even more of an unlikely tale, Zátopek almost did not run in the marathon due to his doctor. His physician recommended he skip the event due to the fact he had an infection, and running could prove very costly to the runner. Zátopek disregarded the advice, and the rest is history.

Zátopek had a legendary 1952 Olympics, which included him winning multiple gold medals. It total, the Czechoslovakian runner won the gold in the 5,000m and 10,000m to go along with his win in the marathon, a trifecta that will probably never be repeated.

The “Czech Locomotive” attempted to defend his marathon gold medal in 1956, but he was hospitalized with a groin injury for six weeks. Although he began training as soon as he left the hospital, he never was quite right, and finished the race in sixth place. He retired the next year.

(Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

5. 2004: U.S. Men’s Basketball falters

The U.S. Men’s Basketball team has been synonymous with winning. In 1992, the USA stopped sending amateurs to the Olympics, and instead, sent a “Dream Team” of NBA stars to compete at the Barcelona Games. That team featured legends like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson, and forever changed International basketball.

The 2004 version of the USA team’s roster was not littered with future Hall of Famers like the 1992 group, but it had it’s fair share of great talent. The team had a handful of future Hall of Famers, but also had players like Carlos Boozer, Lamar Odom, Shawn Marion, and Richard Jefferson on it. Still, they should have rolled through this Olympic Games, but that was not the case.

In one of the biggest upsets in Olympic basketball history, the USA team lost their first game of the tournament to Puerto Rico, whose best player was Carlos Arroyo. Not only were they beaten, they were beaten soundly, losing 92-73. The loss marked a long Olympics for Team USA.

The U.S. Men’s Basketball team had posted a 109-2 record in Olympic play heading into the game, but by the end of the Olympics, they would wind up adding three losses to that record. They finished the Olympics winning the Bronze Medal Game against Lithuania, and had to sit and watch a Manu Ginobili-led Argentina team, who beat them in the semifinals, take the gold.


4. 1964: Billy Mills shocks the world

Not many people knew who Billy Mills was heading into the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. By the time he crossed the finish line of the 10,000m race, his upset victory would become the stuff of legend.

The 1964 10,000m race featured 29 runners, including Australian Ron Clarke, who was the world record holder. Mills, who ran track in college at Kansas, grew up on an Indian Reservation in South Dakota. With his win in the race, Mills became only the second Native American (Jim Thorpe) to win an Olympic gold medal.

The drama unfolded at the end of the race, when Tunisia’s Mohammed Gammoudi ran between Clarke and Mills to take the lead. Clarke then began to close the gap on Gammoudi, with Mills running third. Suddenly, Mills kicked it into another gear, racing past both Clarke and Gammoudi to win the race by 100m.

With his win, Mills became the first American to win the event, and he still is to this day. In fact, the closest an American has come to winning was in 2012, when Galen Rupp took the silver. His time of 28:24.4 set an Olympic record for the event. In 1984, Mills was elected to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame for his accomplishments in track.

(Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images)

3. 2000: Gardner takes down the ‘Russian Bear’

In the history of wrestling, Aleksandr Karelin is the greatest of all-time. The “Siberian Superman,” Karelin had never lost an international match in his career going into the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and had won three straight gold medals. His opponent in the 2000 finals would be American Rulon Gardner, won had never won an international competition or NCAA championship.

It should have been an easy victory for Karelin, as the 33-year old was primed to win his fourth Olympic gold medal. However, Gardner pulled off the impossible, edging Karelin 1-0 in overtime to grab the gold. The match was forced into extra time due to a rule that states a wrestler had to win by three points in order to win in regulation.

After neither wrestler scored in the first round, Gardner scored a point on a reversal in the second, giving him the 1-0 lead. It was the first point Karelin had given up in six years, and it would be the only point Gardner would need. 

The loss also ended Karelin’s career, as he retired from Olympic wrestling following the loss. To this date, his death stare during the medal ceremony is considered one of the scariest moments in Olympic history.

(Billy Stickland/ALLSPORT)

2. Japan’s Women Softball team shocks the United States

The 2008 Summer Olympics were the last Games that had the sport of softball in them. It would also be the scene of the most legendary upset in Olympic softball history, as Japan knocked off defending champion United States 3-1 in the final.

It was voted to take softball and baseball out of the Olympics in 2005, as the events were not that competitive. The United States ruled softball at the Olympics, winning all three gold medals in the history of the sport (1996, 2000, 2004). In fact, heading into the finale, the United States had lost only four preliminary games in their Olympic history.

Due to the way the tournament is bracketed, the game was actually the third time the two countries met in this Olympics alone. The U.S. beat Japan 9-0 in the group phase, and then beat them again to advance to the finals. After Japan beat Australia for a chance to face the United States in the finals, the scene was set for the greatest upset in the history of the sport.

Japan silenced the United States’ bats to the tune of 3-1 victory, ending the U.S. Olympic reign, and giving Japan the last gold medal ever awarded in the sport. Yukiko Ueno was by far the most valuable player for Japan, as the fireballer threw 21 innings over two days to seal her country’s gold medal.

(Photo by Natalie Behring/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

1. 1972: The Soviets ‘earn’ hoops gold

Sitting in a vault in Lusanne, Switzerland are 12 silver Olympic medals. These medals will never be worn, as they are a symbol of the heartbreak of the 1972 U.S. Men’s Basketball team. Their loss to the Soviets is not only the biggest upset in Olympic history, but also the most controversial event in the long history of the Summer Games.

From 1936 to 1972, the United States Men’s Basketball  team had won every gold medal in Olympic competition. Heading into the finale against the USSR, the US had ripped through the group phase, going 7-0 with a 230 point differential. In comparison, the Soviets also went 7-0, showing the same kind of dominance as the United States.

It was a perfect setup for the Gold Medal Game, and it was a classic battle. The United States led 50-49 with three seconds left in the game, though the Soviets had the ball. They inbounded the ball, but the clock stopped at .01 seconds, and the Soviet coaching staff protested that the referees ignored their time out.

The Soviets were given a second chance and time ran out, but the scorer’s table did not start the clock. On the third attempt, the Soviets made the bucket, giving them a 51-50 win and the gold medal. The Americans protested the result, never picked up their medals, and to this day, do not concede that the Soviets won.

It was the most shocking moment in Summer Olympic history, and the biggest upset of all-time.

(Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)


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