Keith Golden Yoga

Running: Toes

Client challenging Yogi, Keith Golden, was taking us through some warm-up exercises to his hip-flexor workout. “Lift up your big toe. Now lower…Lift up your middle three toes. Now lower…Lift up your pinky toe. Now lower…Lift all toes. Now lower…” A quarter of the way through the exercises there was no way for me to continue in integrity. Except for the last one, all toes, it was impossible for me to do these digit lifts.

Finger dexterity is known as a worthy feat (think of playing the piano or typing a story or throwing a baseball), but toe dexterity was a new one for me. How is it that I have run seven marathons, 10 Hood to Coast Relays and dozens of foot races and still have so little control of my toes?

Human Rights Fist for Racial Justice

Keith Golden is a friend of mine. We met over 40 years ago and our paths have recrossed because of George Floyd’s brutal murder. Keith is a proud Black man. While he was taking us through the yoga warm-ups. I thought of a short distance runner who competed in the Olympics. His name is John Carlos.

Fifty-three years ago (1967), John Carlos was guided in his track career by coach and trainer, Bud Winter, at San Jose State. Coach Winter felt that Carlos could gain a few more millimetres with each foot strike, if he modified his stride. Winter noticed Carlos’ slightly duck-footed landing and encouraged him to stretch his toes in toward the full extension with each stride.

Carlos practiced the stride-improving techniques at SJSU for a year. He went on to win the 1968 US Olympic trials, beating Tommie Smith and breaking the World Record at the time. Carlos won the bronze at the Olympics that year.

If John Carlos, a symbolic hero of Black Power, could change his running style ever-so slightly and win an Olympic medal, then it must be worth it to strengthen our toes and feet, as hard as that is. Small incremental changes often might make all the difference.

Tommie Smith & John Carlos wearing Black Power gloves at 1968 Olympics

One World

Talking about feet, and feat, it is important that this Post shifts gears and reflects on the greater lessons of the past. Before the 1968 Olympics, I had never heard of Black Power, nor had I considered the insidious, corrosive damage of white supremacy. In the generations since, it is past-time to tiptoe quietly. Now we must march forward and listen to the deafening wisdom emanating from the One World we share.

One Race

Smith and Carlos were both consummate track athletes, among the best in the world. Their lived experiences were hollowed from cities of racial segregation in Black America. The had listened to the words of Martin Luther King, who had been shot four months earlier. Taking his non-violent approach, they decided to have a silent protest, emphasizing the Black experience. We have all seen the image of these men on the podium: that picture has been branded on our consciousness. Their demonstration, after winning first and third places in the 200 meter race, was powerful, and it put their Olympic medals in jeopardy.

Norman (left), Smith (center) and Carlos. Americans wearing black socks on the podium

One World: One Protest

The two American Olympians bowed their heads during the Star Spangled Banner as a sign of solemnity. Smith (Gold medalist) wore a black scarf around his neck to represent Black pride, Carlos (Bronze) had his tracksuit top unzipped to show solidarity with all blue-collar workers in the US. Carlos also wore a necklace of beads, which he later described “were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred.” The two athletes also wore black socks (no shoes) on the podium to emphasize the poverty of many Black Americans.

Peter Norman, the Silver medal winner in that 200 meter final race, was in solidarity with the Americans and praised them for their fortitude and bravery. When he returned to his native, Australia, Norman, too, was maligned for his affirmation of the Americans’ podium behavior. He was ostracized by the running community and, despite being one of the fastest runners in the world, his career soon ended.

We have seen the podium protest picture many times, but have we stopped to think about the issues of racial inequality that were swirling around the US in 1968 which forced these athletes to protest?

Olympic Reaction

Longtime International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, Avery Brundage, an American, called the Smith and Carlos award ceremony demonstration a domestic, political statement unfit for the apolitical, international Olympic Games. In anger Brundage ordered Smith and Carlos suspended from the US team and banned from the Olympic Village. The US Olympic Committee refused the order and Brundage threatened to ban the entire US track team from the Games. The open threat led to the expulsion of Carlos and Smith from the Village, though they were allowed to keep their medals.

The Public Reaction

These athletes were booed by the crowds in Mexico City as they left the podium. Smith said, “If I win, I am American, not a Black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are Black and we are proud of being Black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”

When these men returned to the US, they received death threats for their actions. Some accused them of looking like two Black men giving a Nazi salute, though it was clearly different. Smith and Carlos were largely tongue lashed and verbally abused by the US sports world, even getting criticism from Time magazine, which wrote, “‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ is the motto of the Olympic Games. ‘Angrier, nastier, uglier’ better describes the scene in Mexico City last week.”[1] Brent Musburger, a writer for the Chicago American, before gaining CBS Sports and ESPN fame, wrote, “[Smith and Carlos are] a couple of black-skinned storm troopers” who were “ignoble,” “juvenile,” and “unimaginative.”[2]

How far have we come since those days of racial tension? And what happened to those bigoted critics?

In 1936 Avery Brundage had made no objection to the Nazi salute during the Berlin Olympics, saying it was an acceptable gesture as a national salute. Thirty-six years later (1972) Brundage was removed as the president of the IOC for being a prominent Nazi sympathizer. His dismissal was one of the top three demands made by the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

And Brent Musburger? He was a longstanding, puerile sports commentator, but he has since been ushered off to the sports-gambling scene in Las Vegas, voicing radio for the Las Vegas Raiders’ football games.

What Now?

Brundage and Musburger aside, the reasons that Smith and Carlos had to make their Olympic demonstrations seem as deeply rooted and intractable today as ever. Athletes have become angrier (kneeling against racial injustice), nastier (Confederate flag burning), and uglier (boycotts), and they are truly justified in their actions. The call for racial equity is getting louder and louder in society and not just in sports.

Riots in Portland, Oregon (2020)

Every corner of the country, from Orlando to New York, from Louisville to Minneapolis, and Compton to Portland, is burning. We must work together to change the narrative of death and dismemberment of Blacks in America at the hands of whites, police and fellow Blacks. Many protesters are charging into these scenes at the risk of personal harm due to the violence and the virus.

We can’t wait for the Pandemic to end, Americans must get back to the real work of talking with each other, stopping the police brutality, solving the protests, and more importantly listening to each other and responding, person to person. Education, housing, food security, health care, jobs, personal safety … the list is long and vital.

So much to learn from listening to the experiences of our fellow humans, standing toe to toe. One story at a time.

[1] Time magazine on October 25, 1968.

[2]  Richard Sandomir, Now on Film: Raised Fists And the Yogi Love LettersThe New York Times, August 6, 1999.