Obama salutes iconic Olympic protesters, at White House

Olympic anthem protesters

WASHINGTON, D.C. It was a stand that shocked the world; American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal podium, raising their black-gloved fists in protest at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

Tommie Smith CBS News

Smith said the moment was overwhelming.

“The national anthem is exactly 1 minute and 30 seconds long, but it seemed like an hour,” he said

That protest against racial inequality got them ejected from the games and banished from the Olympic community for decades.

Extending gloved hands skyward in racial protest, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos stare downward during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200 meter run at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City on Oct. 16, 1968. Australian silver medalist Peter Norman is at left. AP Photo

“Yes we were hated, were were vilified. But I do think because we were hated and vilified that shows you that there was something that needed changing,” Smith said.

On Thursday, nearly 50 years later, the Olympic medalists were welcomed back into the fold by President Obama, who was hosting 2016 Olympians at the White House.

“We’re honored to have here the legendary Tommie Smith and John Carlos here today,” Obama said.

“Their powerful silent protest in the 1968 games was controversial, but it woke folks up and created greater opportunity for those who followed,” he said.

“I felt great. I stood up there and just ate it all up,” said Smith.

Now a new generation of athletes has picked up the baton from Smith, led by NFL quarterback Colin Kapernick, who kneels during the national anthem to protest police violence against African-Americans.

Smith supports activist athletes, and said their peaceful actions take courage.

“When you do something and you really believe in it, you really don’t think about the cost, you just do it,” he said.

And these silent gestures are meant to speak volumes.

  • Margaret Brennan

    Margaret Brennan is moderator of CBS News' "Face The Nation" and CBS News' senior foreign affairs correspondent based in Washington, D.C.