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Olympics '68: The Politics of Hypocrisy


THE Harvard crew not only faced the five fastest crews in the world in Mexico City--they also had to do battle with United States and International Olympic officials.

In the process of supporting the black protests, the Harvard crew became the "shaggies," the "hippies," and the scapegoat of Olympic officialdom.

The United States Olympic Committee attempted to curtail their "political" activities during high altitude training, accused them of trying to "disrupt the team," and then planned to send coxswain Paul Hoffman home for alleged complicity in the Smith-Carlos black power protest the night before the final race. If Hoffman had been judged guilty of conspiring, it is probable that the U.S. would not have entered a boat in the finals since individuals on Harvard's crew were not willing to row without him.

Harvard's involvement with the black athletes dates from even before the "Act of Conscience in support of the Olympic Project for Human Rights" (OPHR) issued by six members of the crew in July. Immediately after the trials in Long Beach, Cleve Livingston and Paul Hoffman had traveled up to San Jose to speak with Harry Edwards, a co-founder with Martin Luther King of the OPHR and advisor to Tommy Smith and Lee Evans.

"We half expected Edwards to say, 'Get the hell out of here. We don't need you,'" Hoffmann said. "But the reaction was just the opposite. He welcomed our help and told us we were the first white athletes to express interest in the blacks' grievances."

Edwards came to Cambridge to speak to the entire crew at the boathouse. Edwards stressed to the group "how this is one of the few non-violent avenues left for the Negro" and described the drawbacks they would have since they were white, Harvard, and a team.

In high altitude training in Gunisson, Col., the crew wrote letters to other members of the U.S. team explaining their position and urging them to think over the issues.

"We wanted to make sure that they (the members of the U.S. team) would have done most of the mental footwork before they got to Mexico City so that they would have some idea where they stood if a demonstration did occur," Andy Larkin explained.

Douglas Robie, president of the USOC, called Coach Harry Parker in to ask about the purpose of the letters. One committee member, Arthur Whattle, wanted to send the crew home from Colorado for these letters, but the committee limited itself to advising the crew that they were violating rule nine of the Olympic constitution by "disrupting the team."

The crew members examined the rule and found that it referred only to the duty to "behave as Americans" so they rejected the committee's restrictions.

It was in Gunisson that it became apparent that the blacks did not wish to work with Harvard athletes. "Maybe they were afraid we would try to take the initiative," one crew member said. "I'm sure they distrusted our motives."

As far as Harry Parker was concerned, "the issue had just about died when they reached Mexico City." The blacks had refused to inform the Harvard activists what they were considering and there was a total breakdown in communications between the white and black athletes. Hal Connolly, the veteran hammer thrower, was the only white invited to the blacks' meetings so it seemed that Harvard's role as a link and source of information was dead.

The protest by Tommy Smith and John Carlos threw Harvard's Paul Hoffman into the limelight. Hoffman, who had been threatened by the white manager of the boxing team for giving an OPHR button to a boxer, was the most active Harvard individual. A week before, Pat Duffy, the manager of the boxing team, had warned the 5 ft. 9 in., 110 pound Hoffman that he would "knock his head off" if Hoffman continued to "intimidate" his boxers.

AT THE medal ceremony in which Smith and Carlos bowed their heads during the national anthem and raised clenched fists, Hoffman happened to be sitting with Smith's and Carlos's wives. According to Hoffman, Pete Axthelm, a Newsweek correspondent, had invited the two wives over to sit with them during the race.

"After the race we went down to the gangway where the runners were, to see them," recounted Hoffman. "Carlos had run with an OPHR button, but Smith had not, so he asked for one. I gave him Axthelm's and then (Peter) Norman, the Australian who finished second, asked for one to wear. I gave him mine."

Hoffman was not totally in favor of the Smith-Carlos protest. 'I thought it was too theatrical," Hoffman said. "I had hoped for a more uniform and widespread action which would have been well explained in a statement signed by both whites and blacks."

Hoffman was called before the committee to be questioned on his role in the protest, a privilege Smith and Carlos were not accorded.

There was not much doubt in the minds of the Harvard team members that the charges were flimsy.

"The Olympic Committee knew Hoffman was in the stadium, talking to Smith's and Carlos's wives, and they saw it as an opportunity to punish him," Parker said.

"To some extent they were waiting for us to step over any line they could draw," Larkin added.

Before Hoffman entered the room, Parker told the committee that they should have resolved the dispute in Colorado, not the night before the race. According to Captain Curt Canning, Douglas Robie, president of the USOC, snarled back, "You're damn right that's when we should have taken care of it."

Hoffman was not prepared to lose. Before he went in, he decided to stick to the facts and not discuss any philosophical or ideological issues.

"I was pretty much on my best manners. In fact, I was incredibly humble. My obligations were primarily to the crew and I was going to make sure the crew rowed. If I had been in track, I would have let them send me home and then I would have taken them to court," he said.

At one point in the questioning, Hoffman said, a member of the committee leaned forward and asked worriedly, "Don't you see what you're doing is disrupting the whole Olympics?"

"Really, sir," he replied, "what we are trying to do is to foster the spirit of brotherhood of the Olympics."

At this the interrogator became furious with Hoffman.

Hoffman was cleared for the lack of evidence and because he pledged not to participate in any demonstrations after the race. One man helped his case by arguing that Hoffman was the son of a judge and therefore must be an honest young man. "Irrelevant arguments like that carry a lot of weight," Hoffman remarked.

There were a number of other minor incidents that indicated the depth of the hostility by some officials and coaches:

* In the Denver airport, the crew was rebuked for wearing OPHR buttons while the officials ignored the black girls on the track and field team who wore them. Curt Canning asked John Carlos if the officials had challenged the button-wearers on the men's track and field team. Carlos said, "They know that if they give us any shit, we'll tell them to go fuck themselves." Then Carlos added, "Do you know why they gave you shit?" "Because you're white and they don't know what you're doing with us black bastards."

* Stan Wright, a Negro assistant track coach for sprinters, commented that "if Negroes want to demonstrate, I don't think they need the Harvard crew."

* At an Embassy reception, Mike Livingston overheard a man in an Olympic booster jacket turn to his wife and say, "There's the Harvard crew, looking dirty as ever." Livingston immediately went up and introduced himself and was followed by five other Harvard crew members. Fritz Hobbs said, "I'm from the Harvard crew and I don't think we look that dirty."

It is difficult to assess just what effect, if any, the Harvard crew had on the U.S. team or on the American public. One less committed oarsman commented, "The leaders had an inflated idea of their own importance. I don't think there were any significant effects of our stand."

Canning disagrees sharply. "I think our position was that of a catalyst. We speeded up the reactions of people on both sides. We received support from the basketball team, the fencing team, the gymnastics team, and Hal and Olga Connolly. On the other hand, there were Randy Matson and Bob Seagren, who saw us as Berkeley radicals. They felt you represent the red, white, and blue for Grandma and apple pie and that's it.

'It was a difficult thing to support the blacks," Hoffman said, "when we had put in a lot of time and work and had a lot of ability that was never called upon. But it was a good thing for us as whites to follow the leadership of blacks in their fight."

Did the controversy have any effect upon the boat's performance?

Harry Parker strongly denies that the boat suffered for it. "Mentally they were ready to race just as hard and just as fast as they had ever done. I don't think you have to explain being beaten by crews of that caliber."

The crew is just as vehement as Parker in their denial.

Andy Larkin said, 'Perhaps if we had had Evans and if the race had been at sea level, things might have been different. But if we had rowed the next day, the result would have been exactly the same."

After the final race, in which Harvard finished last, Avery Brundage, the 81-year-old president of the International Olympic Committee, passed out the medals. In the traditional ceremony the boats rowed by the stands for their final push. Brundage, according to crew members, stood there clapping for fifth place Czechoslovakia and then, as Harvard rowed by, he dropped his hands to his side and stared.

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