Medals as protest: Muhammad Ali & Black Power movement to Indian wrestlers

During the 2020 farmers' movement too, sportspersons from Punjab had marched towards Rashtrapati Bhavan to return 35 national awards

Wrestlers in Haridwar

Haridwar: Protesting wrestlers sit at Har ki Pauri, in Haridwar district, Tuesday, May 30, 2023. (PTI Photo)

Ritwik Sharma New Delhi

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India’s best-known wrestlers were set to throw their medals into the Ganga on Tuesday, May 30, but were persuaded to wait after farmer leader Naresh Tikait sought five days to act on their demand. The grapplers, among whom are champions like Olympic bronze medallists Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia, and Asian Games winner Vinesh Phogat, have been demanding the arrest of wrestling federation chief Brij Bhushan Singh over sexual harassment charges.

This is not the first time that athletes have decided to give up their medals in protest or have made their medals a symbol of protest. Back in the 1960s, boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who was then known as Cassius Clay, is storied to have tossed his Olympic gold into the Ohio River in protest against racism in the US. He had won the medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960. Although Ali fought all his life against racial segregation, some accounts say he had either lost or misplaced that medal.

American sports have had instances of athletes expressing dissent at the Olympics medal ceremony as well, reflecting the nation’s troubled history of race. In the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos received their medals shoeless, but wearing black socks, to represent black poverty. They also raised a black-gloved fist while standing on the podium.

Four years later, at the Munich Olympics, two other African-American athletes, Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett, staged a unique protest that has largely been forgotten. Matthews and Collett, who were the gold and silver medal winners in the men’s 400-metre sprint, chatted between themselves, shuffled about and fidgeted as the national anthem played. It led many to believe it was a smith defiant gesture as that of Smith and Carlos in support of the Black Power movement.

In an interview with the American Broadcasting Company later, Collett admitted that The Star-Spangled Banner meant nothing to him. He felt unable to honour the anthem because of the adversity faced by Black Americans, he said. “I couldn’t stand there and sing the words because I don’t believe they’re true. I believe we have the potential to have a beautiful country, but I don’t think we do.” In the immediate aftermath of the incident, the pair was banned from participating in future Olympiads by the International Olympic Committee.

In India, the wrestlers’ medal protest has inspired other sports persons as well. On Tuesday, 13 of them from Manipur, including Olympians, urged the government to restore peace in their state that has been engulfed in ethnic violence for almost a month. The athletes submitted a memorandum to Home Minister Amit Shah seeking action against extremist groups. Many of them threatened to return their medals and awards if the government failed to address their demand for peace. Olympic silver medallist weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, who was among the 13 athletes, later clarified to The Indian Express that she had not threatened to return her medals but sought an end to violence in Manipur.

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In December 2020, at the peak of the Indian farmers’ protest against agriculture legislations, sportspersons from Punjab had also marched towards Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi to return 35 national sports awards to show their solidarity with the agitation. The sportspersons, who were led by two-time Asian Games gold-winning wrestler Kartar Singh, were, however, stopped midway by the police. The incident was only a footnote in the farmers’ movement that spanned more than a year. The ongoing wrestlers’ protest has asked direct questions of sports in India, and may yet witness a Muhammad Ali moment.

First Published: Jun 1 2023 | 3:39 PM IST

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