When art brings Mexico City 68 back to life

Taking as an example the 1962 Mexico City Olympics and the black-gloved fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Yvan Gastaut, lecturer at the University of the Côte d’Azur, reminds us how sport is engraved in our memories and how art helps to immortalise it.

Sport is an outstanding source of inspiration for people in the cultural sector, as can be seen from the current blossoming of art around sporting practices. It is a long time since sport was confined to a specific setting far removed from culture and politics! This has been true for two or three decades now and is confirmed by the interest in sport shown by the political and cultural worlds. To give an example of this cultural aspect, let’s take the most famous case in the history of the Olympics: the 200 metres medal ceremony at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. Everyone has the mythical image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos with their fists raised engraved in their memory, so that this episode can now be considered as “world culture”.

When art brings a sporting event back to life

Although the image of these heroes and their gesture represented a vague sporting memory, it took a long time, more than a generation, before it was again seen as an exemplary, brave, avant-garde combat. From the years 2000, when American and world opinion became more aware of the importance of sport in the context of social problems, including problems of identity and racism, artists began to use this episode as a source of inspiration. Rigo 23 (Ricardo Gouveia), an American artist with Portuguese origins, was interested in the political involvement of Blacks in the United States. Unveiled in 2005 with the title Victory Salute, his realistic statue represents the life-sized winners’ podium with the two black heroes in their respective places with their fists raised. However, the work provoked controversy about the absence, or suppression, of Peter Norman, the third athlete, who did not raise his fist. Many people thought that the absence of the “white man” was a way of pursuing the opposition between Whites and Blacks, as in 1968. The “1968 moment” was restored in 2016, when a life-sized statue of the podium in its entirety was inaugurated at the same time as the Washington National Museum of African American History and Culture. This statue welcomes you into the building, as if it represents the most powerful symbol of the struggles by Blacks in United States history.

Do you know Glenn Kaino?

The most significant creative work based on the Mexico City podium is by the conceptual artist Glenn Kaino. He works on problems of identity and politics1. With the help of Tommie Smith, Kaino conceived an edifying installation in 2013, entitled 19:83. It looks at the notion of memory and forgetting. The artist goes back over the race itself, with a series of archive photos from the actual event. The pictures are partially deliberately erased by the artist. What do we see? In succession, the athletes leave the starting blocks, run along the track and cross the finishing line. As we follow the images, we arrive in front of a 3D gold-plated podium which symbolises the rest of the story. But there is nobody on it. The fateful moment when the medals were presented has to be evoked out of nothing. The podium was where history was made, but the people are missing. Have they been forgotten? Have they forgotten? Everything is confused in our memories. This work was presented in 2013 at the Contemporary Art Museum in Lyon. Like the other artists, Glenn Kaino worked with the active support of Tommie Smith. The meeting between the two men has been transformed into a sort of creative friendship. In the same year, Kaino produced Bridge, an immense work 100ft long. It is composed of repeated casts of Tommie Smith’s arm raised in protest, forming an undulating sculpture like a suspended bridge. There is a double metaphor: the gesture raises the hope that bridges will be built between people, overcoming all discrimination; it may also be a bridge in time, linking us to this distant event buried in our memories.

“Art as a support for reflecting on memories”

Taking this specific example, it is interesting to analyse the way in which art uses sporting events. Contemporary artists, who are often sport enthusiasts, probe these events through a creative process which reveals them and brings them back to life. Art becomes a support for reflecting on memories.

Revue 55 Sport et CitoyennetéRead the journal :

Sport and Citizenship 55 : enhancing sport and physical activity by culture


Sport et citoyenneté