Before she left for the 2004 Olympic Games,
we asked Dr. Bass about her interest in sports, and her extraordinary
book, Not the
Triumph but the
Struggle: the 1968
Olympic Games and the Making of the Black Athlete, that was
published in 2002 by the University of
We also asked Dr.
Bass about women’s
sports, and the course she will be giving next fall at CNR on sports.
What are your
responsibilities in Athens?:
I am the Research Room Supervisor, meaning
that I oversee the 30 or so people who act as the central information
for the broadcast of the Games on NBC networks.
many hours a day do you work when the Games are
I will likely be working 13 to 18
hours per day, depending on the action.
you get to enjoy the Games or are you too busy?:
It depends on the schedule. In Atlanta, I barely saw anything
the International Broadcast Center because we were live so much of the
in Sydney, I got to see a lot of stuff because of the time difference –
gold medal baseball game between Cuba and the USA, women’s gymnastics,
a lot of
track and field, and so on. In Salt
saw some speed skating, skiing, and short track.
Bass, tell us about your book,
Triumph but the
Struggle: the 1968
and the Making of the Black Athlete.
It is a look
behind the very famous photo of
the black power protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and
medalists in 1968 in the men’s 200-meters. The book focuses on the
that Smith and Carlos were part of – the Olympic Project for Human
which proposed a boycott by African Americans of the Olympics if its
civil rights demands was not met. It eventually called the boycott off,
its members to protest at the Games instead. Smith and Carlos did
just that, and used this
moment -- their moment -- in front of the world to speak out against
racial oppression. That moment became the central symbol of the Mexico
Olympics, and one of the best representations of just how complex 1968
let me explore multiple historical themes, including civil rights
the rise of newly independent African nations, ideas of minority
sweeping student unrest, and the relationship between politics and mass
did you pick that topic for
didn’t start out focusing solely on the Olympic Project for Human
after my stint in Atlanta
which ended with me at
the Closing Ceremony, roaming the
infield of Olympic Stadium wearing an all-access badge, searching for
that the cameras needed to focus on, it quickly changed. Now that I had
hands with Michael Johnson and Jackie Joyner Kersee, I only wanted to
about the Olympics. Mexico City
became the focal point of
my work, and Smith and Carlos my main characters.
dissertation and the subsequent book?
bought the rights to the Olympics and made Mexico
the first large-scale broadcast of a summer Games. So
all of these things – black power, apartheid, protesting students, etc.
televised. Indeed, a lot of the tumultuous politics of 1968 in general
televised: the Tet Offensive in Vietnam,
the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert
F. Kennedy, the Democratic Convention in Chicago.
So the Black Power protest of Smith and Carlos fits
well within the trajectory of this pivotal year.
How has your own
at the Olympic Games been important to your work?
been really unique. I worked in Atlanta,
and Salt Lake
for NBC, supervising the research operation behind
the scenes. In return, I got incredible access to both the Games in
and, specifically, to the media operations that portray them. The
that I made during these times had a tremendous impact on me: I think
is hard for anyone who has never been to an Olympics to understand
magnitude. They are, bottom line, an awesome spectacle – the pageantry,
personal stories, the wealth of competition, the many walks of life
represented. There are lots of reasons to be critical of the Olympics –
corporatism, Western dominance, media saturation, elitism, and, of
scandals of the International Olympic Committee. But sitting in
an Olympic Stadium watching a
Closing Ceremony, in which athletes dance together, trade parts of
uniforms, and exchange Olympic pins, one is struck by just how
all is. Where else do people from some 200 countries gather,
just the rich or the famous, but some very real, very “everyday” kinds
Because for every Prince Albert
bobsled, there is an Eric Moussambani of Equatorial
Guinea in a swimming pool.
The clenched black
fist was certainly not a new sight in 1968 – why did Smith and Carlos’
cause such furor?
of the Olympic
Project for Human Rights were largely viewed as ingrates by both the
public and by the sporting establishment. They were considered to be
who had ‘made it’ – they were a part of the Show. By threatening to
Games unless full citizenship was granted to black America, they were
voluntarily removing themselves from an arena that was considered,
spuriously so, to be integrated, using their medal-winning potential,
terribly important to Cold War America, as a means of power for others
didn’t have that kind of voice
You go as far as to
that Smith and Carlos
were blamed for politicizing the Games. How so?
had, and still
does to some degree, a perception of itself that was apolitical – that
requiring an athlete to compete under the auspices of a national flag,
competition was not between nations but rather between individuals.
Officially, for example, the IOC does not keep a national medal tally –
media constructed count that began during the Cold War, when the U.S.
USSR used the number of gold medals won as evidence as to which
better political system, democracy versus communism. And we still
see vestiges of that “East
versus West” medal race today, especially in the wake of the scandal
surrounded the pairs figure skating competition in Salt
Carlos’s action was
seen as introducing national politics into this so-called apolitical
with little regard to the transnational struggle they were fighting
rights). When the massacre of Israeli athletes at Munich
occurred four years later at the hands of the Black
September Movement, Smith and Carlos were directly invoked, indeed
quarters of the media who concluded that if the black power protest
happened, no one would have seen the Olympics as a viable showground
terrorism. Of course, this kind of historical amnesia lets a figure
Hitler, who certainly politicized the Berlin Games, off the hook, but
dangerously avoids examining just how impossible it is to separate the
pageantry of an event like the Olympics from politics.
Do you consider the
Olympic Project for Human Rights successful?
As the title
of the book
indicates, victory can be defined in many ways. I think that a common
misconception that many people have regarding civil rights movements in
is success. Did the OPHR succeed in boycotting the Mexico City Games?
obviously not. An important part of understanding collective action is
the collective itself. Racial identity cannot create an unconditionally
whole – that is something that every politically defined movement must
with. Getting all self-identified black athletes to boycott the Games
near impossibility, as an Olympic gold medal can have such a tremendous
on an amateur athlete’s future. The OPHR found that out, and unless all
involved boycotted, it would not be an effective action. So after a
intense media spotlight, the boycott was called off.
said, did the OPHR have
an impact? Absolutely. It demonstrated an alternative arena for civil
actions, one that combined a more traditionally defined mode of action,
boycott, with a more radically defined ideology, Black Power. The
threat of the
boycott nurtured the spotlight that eventually gave the gesture of
Carlos so much meaning, and brought the varied demands of the OPHR –
restoration of Muhammad Ali’s title, the banning of South
Africa from international competition,
the addition of
black members to the International Olympic Committee – further
course, in terms of where their images are today, that becomes
Without question, the image of successful athletes like Michael Jordan
Tiger Woods makes a lot of Americans feel better about our race record,
somehow within the corporatism that Jordan and Woods encompass, new
civil rights movements need to emerge.
seem always to
to civil rights movements,
it plural acknowledges the nuance and variety created by those who
engaged in struggles for equity. Common goals did not necessarily mean
approaches, with the most familiar example being the split between
Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the cry for Black Power
from organizations such as the Student Non-violent Coordinating
the Black Panthers. Utilizing sports as a civil rights arena was the
many, but it most forcefully came to fruition through the OPHR, who
on the economic, cultural, social, and political importance that sports
both the national and international level.
rather than the Civil Rights Movement.
Is that an important distinction?
you think that
the Olympic Games
important and worthy of our attention?
think the success of Salt Lake,
for example, speaks
volumes about the ability of much of the world to conduct itself
a length of time. While there is, certainly, much to criticize in the
stories Salt Lake
told via its Opening and
Closing ceremonies, there is something to be said for what kind of a
experience one gains from participating – whether as an athlete or a
– in the Olympics. Sport serves as a stage with the potential for
symbolic power, one literally – physically – focused on human
the Olympic Games achieve a global nature unparalleled. They are
certainly, plagued by accusations of corporate scandals, doping,
aristocracy, an overly-Western influence, and a seemingly ever-lasting
between Communist (and even former Communist) athletes and the rest of
the International Olympic Committee also makes some interesting
terms of its role as a world power: it censured Afghanistan
when the Taliban took
power; threw South Africa
out during its apartheid
era; and has allowed delegations from Puerto Rico,
East Timor, and Palestine autonomy
elsewhere. It also, perhaps most importantly, lets much of the world
it looks like for some 200 nations, wearing something representative of
identity, to get together in a manner that is not, well, boring.
attending an Olympic Closing Ceremony is a profound experience, one
convince most anyone that the Olympic movement must continue through
and one that you just can’t totally get unless you go.
As a women’s
college, Title IX is very
important to us.
How did Title IX demonstrate its importance at the
the Atlanta Olympics, an unprecedented 3,700 women competed. While
always done well in individual sports for the United States, as there
other elite outlets for their talent, Atlanta marked a successful
effort for American women, bringing home team gold in basketball,
soccer, and gymnastics. Without question, American women were the face
Atlanta Olympics, and they were the women who were the first generation
up under Title IX – the first who knew it was okay for girls to play
Dr. Bass, are you a
In terms of
being a fan, yes
and no. I love tennis, and I’m both cursed and blessed to be a Red Sox
But I’m not an ESPN-watching/sports page-reading junkie. I’m more
how sport is a central arena in which questions of racial identity are
out. The black athlete is one of the most visible representations of
modern society: seen on television and in print, cheered by millions in
stands and in their living rooms, gracing cereal boxes and magazine
with white counterparts and – at least superficially – accepted.
So an examination of the black athlete, one
which looks at the black athlete as a character invented or created by
societal and cultural perceptions, serves as an amazing place to
of national identity, the operations of mass media, multiple methods of
rights struggles, and numerous manifestations of both race and racism
What will your fall
course in sports focus on, Dr. Bass?
is an upper-division seminar, meaning it’s a lot of reading, research,
and writing. The course argues that athletes are an excellent window
through which to study ideas of racial and national identity, because
athletes are among the most integrated and diverse racial subjects in
the world – seen in all facets of media, cheered by millions of
fans. Students will be using Athens as a vehicle for discussion, doing
reading on subjects such as Althea Gibson, Ali, and Jackie Robinson;
the 1936, 1960 and 1968 Olympics (for obvious reasons); and developing
research projects of their own to share with the class. It builds on
other courses that I offer in cultural history, such as U.S Youth
Culture, which I taught last semester, which used the idea of youth and
popular culture to understand major themes in American history.