Commentary

Olympic emphasis has shifted

In the summer of 1968, practical considerations kept star at home

Updated: August 2, 2012, 1:37 PM ET
By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar | ESPN.com

In 1968 the Olympics were more political and less lucrative.

Professional athletes could not compete and fewer sports were contested. Politics played a much bigger role because the Cold War overshadowed all international events. Western democracies were held up in comparison to the countries that followed communist and socialist policies. Internally, many of the participating countries also were dealing with growing dissent, as marginalized members of society began to more forcefully address the inequities and indignities of life.

[+] EnlargeTommie Smith
AP PhotosTommie Smith, center, and John Carlos, right, protested on the podium.

Today's Olympics are much less of a contest of ideologies. East or West, capitalist or socialist, the nations of the world are about making a buck and politics has taken a back seat.

I was invited to try out for the team 44 years ago, but instead I chose to keep a job I had with the New York City Housing Authority. I taught basketball at clinics around the city that summer and tried to sell kids on the idea of staying in school. Some people suggested I was making a statement by not going to Mexico City, but the money I made and saved was crucial to providing financial security for me during my senior year at UCLA.

People thought that I was supporting a boycott of the Olympics that would be joined by other black American athletes (something I've previously written about). However, the boycott never took place, and I did not refuse to attend for any political reason at all. I can remember being intensely questioned because suspicion was plentiful.

Joe Garagiola on NBC's "The Today Show" interviewed me in a rather testy session. He suggested that those who didn't like life in the U.S. should leave and go somewhere that was more suitable to their needs. I responded that things in the U.S. still needed a lot of work and black Americans would be involved in pointing out some of those things that needed to change.

Republican political strategists were implementing their "Southern Strategy," a plan to recruit as many Southern whites who resented civil rights legislation as possible. That strategy was very successful and it changed the Republican Party. It is no longer the party of Lincoln. Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, among others, switched allegiances while holding onto discriminatory views and foreshadowed the face of the party today. There were plenty of politics at home, but even if I had gone to the Olympics, there would have been no escaping.

The 1936 Berlin Games, held in Nazi Germany, provided an early example of that. U.S. athletes of African descent were able to undermine the false racial theories the Nazis were promoting. The struggle for equality was ongoing 32 years later when black American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos made their black-gloved, shoeless salute during the medal ceremony for the 200-meter race. They stated later that they were calling attention to what was happening in America both within the world of sports and in the ordinary moments of life. The quiet dignity of the black Olympians was very effective in giving a positive picture of what black Americans could contribute to American life. They also created a greater awareness outside the U.S. about what was happening in the U.S.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesLeBron James and Team USA's summer job is to play for gold.

By then the civil rights movement had shown its strength to the world. Even though Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered, black Americans, including athletes, had something to say and a righteous cause to support. Before that year was over another civil rights bill, this one outlawing housing discrimination, had been signed and the legal structure for racial segregation was forever undermined. More importantly, the direction of change became very obvious to people around the world.

In the midst of these fights for rights, the Olympics grew in popularity and scope. The burgeoning bottom line of the Olympics (and Olympians) tracks with the changes in the basketball tournament. For much of the 20th century, the U.S. dominated. The bumps, of course, were a controversial loss to the USSR in 1972 and a bronze-medal finish in 1988 that shocked Americans. That led to the event that forever changed the status of basketball in the minds of athletes around the world. The Olympics of '92, where the world got to meet the "Dream Team," introduced a new level of play to international competition. Those players' demonstration of athletic skill and teamwork made basketball even more of a sensation around the world (and provided a multitude of marketing tie-ins).

A direct result of that popularity was an uprising in foreign athletes making their way into the NBA. And it hasn't stopped there, as is evident by the Americans' third-place finish in Athens: Countries whose own players now have NBA experience have improved to the point that they regularly challenge the U.S. The time when American college kids could dominate Olympic competition in basketball, much less compare amateur bank account balances with their competitors, is long gone.

The U.S. basketball team did very well and won the gold in fine form in 1968 just like the roster of NBA stars is expected to do in the coming week. Now the Games are more about entertaining and sponsorships than anything else. Those interested in political intrigue this month were left with the important debate over the handful of countries that finally added female competitors, and a minor U.S.-British dispute that started with a question about security from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney resulted in a comment about the "middle of nowhere" from prime minister David Cameron and was resolved quickly when the two met with agreement that these would be an outstanding Games. We now have the Olympics of the friendly International Corporate Future.

Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA's all-time leading scorer and the author of several New York Times best-selling books.

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