I am the daughter of not one, but two P.E. teachers. My brother is also a P.E. teacher. I am the apple that fell a little further from our family tree. I love watching sport, it’s just the taking part that I find so tiresome. This difference in our family dynamics is beautifully illustrated by the photos that adorn a bookshelf in my parents’ home. There’s a picture of my Mum as a young woman, standing proudly with a netball team. Then there’s my Dad, the embodiment of athleticism, ball in hand, sprinting down the wing of some rugby pitch of the past. My brother’s photo is of him, green tracksuited, with the Ireland Under 21 hockey squad. Stars one and all. Then there’s a picture of me, all dressed up to go to a school dance with my friends. No sporty shots of me in the family archive!
Being from this kind of family I grew up with stories of sporting folklore, particularly told by my Dad from his two favourite sports of rugby and athletics. And so it was that I came to hear of the Black Power Salute from the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. Two African American athletes, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, had gained first and third place in the 200metres final. It was the time of the civil rights movement and so they decided to use this opportunity on a world stage to make their own protest. And so on the podium, after receiving their medals and while their national anthem was being played, they bowed their heads and raised a black-gloved fist.
This was a shocking moment in Olympic history. The athletes were boo-ed from the stadium. But over time, as things in America began to change, these men came to be seen as heroes of the civil rights movement. They both went on to have further involvement in the field of athletics, and the image of them on the podium can be seen in certain parts of the U.S. as both a mural and a statue.
This was the story as I knew it growing up.
Until a little BBC film during the London 2012 Olympics told me the story of the other man on the podium that day, Peter Norman, the Australian who came in second.
Tommy Smith and John Carlos felt it was only right that they share with Peter Norman what they were planning, given that he would be on the stage with them. And in that moment Peter Norman had a choice. He could have said, ‘Guys, I wish you well but I’m just going to take my medal and be on my way.’
But he didn’t. He said ‘I’ll stand with you’ and he wore a badge on his tracksuit in support of the civil rights movement. In fact, just before the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos realised that one of them had forgotten their black gloves and for a moment thought that they wouldn’t be able to make their protest. It was Peter Norman who told them to wear one glove each and raise alternate hands.
Peter Norman went back to Australia in disgrace. Four years later, even though he ran a qualifying time, he was not selected by the Australian Athletics Federation. He never was again. And years later he died in poverty and obscurity – but Tommy Smith and John Carlos were there to carry his coffin.
Why do I tell you this story?
Because sometimes it’s too easy for us to look the other way. To say ‘It’s not my fight. There’s not really anything I can do. I wouldn’t make a different anyway.’
But throughout history those being crushed under the weight of poverty and injustice have needed others to come alongside them and say ‘I’ll make your fight my fight. I’ll add my voice to yours so that together we will both be heard. I will take what is in my hand and add it to what is in yours so that a real difference can be made’
It’s not difficult to think of situations today where people need us to stand alongside them. Cast your eye around your neighbourhood and over the newspapers and you will see injustice on a local, national and global level. In each of those moments we have a choice. We can look the other way and tell ourselves that it’s not our fight and there’s nothing we can do, or we can roll up our sleeves and get involved. We can’t do that for every cause of course, but let’s not use the excuse of there being too much and too many to let ourselves off the hook and do too little or not at all.
Who might God ask you to stand up for today?
Where might he ask you to use your voice, your influence or your resources?
Are you willing for him to interrupt your day and your plans with something that may cost you?