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BOYCOTT NOW—BOYCOTT LATER?
Pete Axthelm
February 26, 1968
In New York black demonstrators protested against a club track meet, while in Grenoble the International Olympic Committee, by readmitting South Africa, stimulated the proposed Olympic boycott
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February 26, 1968

Boycott Now—boycott Later?

In New York black demonstrators protested against a club track meet, while in Grenoble the International Olympic Committee, by readmitting South Africa, stimulated the proposed Olympic boycott

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Larry Livers, a hurdler from Oakland, walked through the swirling picket line toward one of the side entrances to the new Madison Square Garden. A cop glanced at his ticket and allowed him to cross the police line; a few pickets glared at him in sullen silence. Livers was one of a handful of Negroes who planned to compete in the New York Athletic Club's annual indoor meet—an event that was boycotted by many athletes, both black and white, because of the club's discriminatory membership practices. Near the door, at the end of his 3,000-mile trip to the meet, Livers met Ken Noel.

Noel is a former half-miler, a student with a master's degree in sociology, and the chief assistant to Professor Harry Edwards of San Jose State, leader of the movement that may produce a black boycott of the Olympic Games. In his own way Noel can be almost as dominant in a group as the 6'8" Edwards. He looked at Livers and spoke slowly, with no anger or threat in his voice. "Brother, why would you want to go in there?"

Livers hesitated. "I wanted the plane trip to New York to see my family. And I wasn't really notified about the situation here."

Charlie Mays, quarter-miler for New York's Grand Street Boys, interrupted him. "Larry, you can't let the rest of us down by going in there." Noel nodded silently and waited. Finally Livers smiled, turned away from the door and went home.

There were a number of similar confrontations in the days leading up to the New York AC meet, and there will undoubtedly be many more in the months ahead. Black athletes will argue about when and if they should protest racial injustices; some of them will face difficult decisions about whether to compete in the Olympics. When Tommie Smith and Lee Evans joined Edwards in proposing an Olympic boycott last November, their chances of pulling it off appeared extremely remote. In the three months that followed, their cause seemed, if anything, to become even more hopeless. Last weekend this trend was dramatically reversed by separate events 4,000 miles apart. A widespread Olympic boycott may still be no more than a distant possibility, but it is certainly possible—and it appears far more likely now than it ever did before.

In itself, the boycott of the NYAC meet hardly ranks as a turning point in the history of racial strife. The meet was the club's 100th and it was scheduled as track's debut in the new Garden, but it was still just one sports event in one city; it could have been quietly canceled without being missed very much outside New York. The threats of violence preceding the meet, blown far out of proportion, were unfortunate but not very important in the long run. And the issue at stake—the crusty old Irish-dominated club's refusal to admit Negroes and all but a few Jews into its hallowed dining rooms and steambaths—was almost irrelevant.

What was important, however, was the test of whether Edwards, Noel and their followers could organize an effective and nonviolent protest. The NYAC, intransigent and obtuse, provided a perfect target for any protest; club spokesmen hardly deigned to comment as the boycott movement grew, and dismissed the undeniably lily-white makeup of the club as a right it had earned by many contributions to Negro youths through various track organizations. Edwards realized that the Olympics would present a much more complex and ambiguous target. Very few people can implicate the Olympics in any way with social injustice. Then, on the very day of the NYAC meet, Edwards picked up his New York Times and saw, in a banner headline above the story of his own boycott, the announcement that South Africa would be allowed back into the Olympics, ending a ban instituted in 1963 because of the nation's policies of racial discrimination.

"Where are all the people who say the Olympics should be above racism?" Edwards said. "Who can say the Olympics shouldn't be the target now? The committee has shown the black man just what it thinks of him. I think things will really begin to heat up."

Things heated up all over the world within hours after the International Olympic Committee, meeting in Grenoble, revealed the result of its secret-ballot vote by 71 members. The committee pointed out that South Africa had agreed to integrate its teams, a drastic measure for that country. But that concession could not convince black Africans—or many black Americans—that the Olympic Committee had not cast a ringing vote for apartheid. Ethiopia and Algeria quickly announced their withdrawals from the Mexico City Games, and a number of other countries soon followed. Legally, the Olympic Committee could lean on a tradition of noninvolvement in nations' internal affairs; as long as the South African team was integrated, the IOC could overlook the fact that it would be selected in segregated trials based on a national law that forbids meets involving both blacks and whites. But the committee could not avoid an emotional reaction that might jeopardize the Olympic Games.

Whether the impact of entire nations' withdrawing from the Games will seriously affect the attitudes of black American athletes remains to be seen. Most of them have been solidly against Smith and Evans and their plan to use the Olympics as a platform to dramatize their grievances at home. But the South Africa ruling could transform the Olympics from a mere showcase into a real target. It certainly will if Edwards has anything to do with it. "This new issue will force the black man to fight," he insisted. "They've virtually said the hell with us. Now we'll have to reply: Let Whitey run his own Olympics."

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