MEXICO CITY -- Fifty years ago Tuesday, United States sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith delivered their iconic black power salute on the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games. A newly revealed letter corroborates a belief they did so under threat of expulsion from the American head of the International Olympic Committee -- a threat that was eventually carried out after it also was applied to the entire U.S. Olympic delegation in Mexico City.
Correspondence between Avery Brundage, who served as president of the IOC from 1952-72, and Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, chairman of the Mexico City Games' organizing committee, was recently turned over to ESPN by Ramirez's son Javier during a televised interview about the lead-up to and fallout from the protest.
In one of two letters, the first dated July 31, 1968 -- just two months before the opening ceremonies -- Brundage wrote to Ramirez about his desire to "avoid any occurrences [that] will endanger the dignity of the Games," in reference to potential protests related to the civil rights movement from American athletes. "[Participants] in a demonstration must be removed from the Games. U.S.A. competitors should be warned that they will be sent home."
On Oct. 16, 1968, Smith won the 200-meter race with a time of 19.83, a world record at the time.
"What [Brundage] did in 1968 was he put a barrier on the [United States Olympic Committee] proclaiming that if any athlete came in front of the world with [us], the entire American Olympic team would be disqualified," Smith told Vice Magazine in 2012.
Carlos, a teammate of Smith's at San Jose State, took the bronze. Australian sprinter Peter Norman finished in second place.
Neither the USOC nor the Mexican Olympic Committee replied to requests for comment.
Carlos and Smith staged their protest just six months after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who had called on African-American athletes to boycott the Games in support of racial equality.
Brundage was in attendance during the men's 200-meter final at the Estadio Olimpico Universitario but quietly departed the stadium to watch another event at a different venue. Smith and Carlos were to have received their medals from Brundage.
"Suddenly, the head of awards tells me that the winners would not receive their medals and did not want to stand on the podium, because [Brundage] was supposed to give them the medals. So they refused to be [at the winner's ceremony]," said Cesar Moreno, head of competition at the Games.
Another IOC official, David Cecil of England, eventually presented the sprinters with their medals.
As "The Star-Spangled Banner" played to honor the American gold medalist in front of a capacity crowd, Smith and Carlos took off their shoes -- each displaying black socks -- bowed their heads and raised gloved fists. Norman, who was told of the protest beforehand, showed support for the Americans by wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge.
Hours later, the IOC characterized the protest as "a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit." The gesture was enough for Brundage to order the United States Olympic Committee to expel the protesting athletes.
When the USOC resisted, Brundage threatened to have the entire American delegation sent back.
"The IOC had indicated, it was said [by the USOC], that it might bar the entire United States team from further participation if the athletes were not disciplined," the New York Times reported in 1968.
It was only then that Carlos and Smith were ousted from the Games. A USOC statement regarded their actions as "untypical exhibitionism" and accused them of "[violating] the basic standards of good manners and sportsmanship." Upon arriving in the U.S., Carlos and Smith reported death threats and discrimination stemming from their actions.
"I had no doubt that it was coming. When you shock somebody, like we did on that medal stand, they go into a panic-type situation because they've never experienced being shocked," Carlos said in an interview with the weekly magazine The Nation.
Brundage's issues with the salute did not end there. He continued to express his displeasure a year later, when the official documentary of the Games, "Olimpiada en México," was to be released in theaters.
"It was very disturbing to have you confirm the rumors that have reached my ears about the use of pictures of the nasty demonstration against the United States flag by negroes in the official film of the Games of the XIX Olympiad," Brundage wrote to Ramirez in a second letter, dated Aug. 19, 1969. "As you know, the reaction was immediate and the culprits were sent home at once."
The promotional poster for the film featured an image of Smith, Carlos and Norman during the iconic moment. That prompted Jose de Jesus Clark Flores, one of the men responsible for bringing the Games to Mexico City, to reach out to Ramirez and the film's director, Alberto Isaac, in an effort to persuade them to de-emphasize the protest from the documentary and its advertising materials.
"An analysis of everything leads me to a single conclusion: to beg of you [Ramirez], that this scene be omitted from the official film of the Olympic Games," Clark wrote one day after Brundage had written his letter. "I fear it will fog a bit the success [of the Games] and will offend a person [Brundage] who has been a friend of Mexico for many years, as well as an excellent personal friend of ours."
Ramirez and Isaac, however, believed the historical importance of the moment was worth preserving.
"It was an iconic moment of the Olympics, which many people thought could be a fleeting thing," said Javier Ramirez Campuzano, Ramirez's son and custodian of his father's historical archive. "The moment was in keeping with the Olympic ideal of equality. The protest was not inconsistent with this ideal."
The scene was kept in the final cut, and Brundage did not attend the film's premiere. Following Brundage's retirement from the IOC, the organization's stance toward Carlos and Smith softened. On the IOC's official website for the 1968 Olympics, the protest is recognized as one of the iconic moments from the Games.
ESPN Mexico reporter Tlatoani Carrera provided research and reporting for this article.