Philip Barker

The powerful gesture by the Iranian players in refusing to sing their national anthem and the furore over the rainbow armbands have made it a week to remember at the FIFA World Cup.

Add in the acquittal in Greece of protesters who unfurled banners protesting against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and no one can be in any doubt protests at sporting events attract the global spotlight.

From officialdom such actions have often been accompanied by an uncomfortable shuffling of the feet and disapproving noises.

It was ever thus, for 50 years ago, two American athletes who made their own protest against injustice were handed a life Olympic ban for behaviour the International Olympic Committee (IOC) minutes described as "a disgrace to the Olympic movement".

The life ban for Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett has never been rescinded.

Only last month in Port of Spain, Caribbean Association of National Olympic Committees secretary general Brian Lewis re-affirmed the continuation of a long campaign to revoke the ban.

The Munich Olympics of 1972 began in bright sunlight, but the attack on the Israeli team which left 11 members dead overshadowed everything before and after.

At a hastily conceived memorial service held in the Olympic Stadium itself, IOC President Avery Brundage declared: "The Games must go on."

So, in the late afternoon of the following day, Matthews lined up for in the men’s 400 metres alongside countrymen Collett and John Smith.

Matthews had only finished only third at the United States trials before the Games. After qualifying comfortably in the heats, he posted the fastest time in the semi-finals.

In the final, Smith pulled up with a recurrence of a hamstring injury as the race turned into a contest between Collett and Matthews for gold.

"Roaring down the homestretch, Matthews pulled ahead to score a convincing triumph," the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) official report said.

The winning time for Matthews was 44.66sec. Collett clocked 44.80 for silver. Julius Sang of Kenya was third.

It fell to American IOC member Douglas Roby to present the medals.

"Matthews and Collett stood on the victory rostrum while their anthem was being played with their hands on their hips and gently chatting," was how Chris Brasher, 1956 Olympic steeplechase champion now a journalist, described the moment.

"I have a feeling there will be questions asked," ABC television commentator Jim Mckay predicted in the broadcast back to the US.

"The boos and whistling began when they stepped down,’" Dwight Chapin in the Los Angeles Times recorded.

Collett described the moment when the American national anthem was played. "I could not stand there and cannot go along with the words, I do not believe they are true," Collett explained.

Matthews denied that there had been any political intent on the podium.

"I never stand at attention," Matthews told the New York Times afterwards. "I wasn't acting any differently than I usually do but we were like gold fish in a bowl."

In the years before the Games, Matthews had worked as a social worker in inner-city New York, so he was much more socially aware than many in the Olympic corridors of power.

IOC President Avery Brundage insisted that the Olympics should carry on after the massacre of Israeli athletes in 1972 ©Getty Images
IOC President Avery Brundage insisted that the Olympics should carry on after the massacre of Israeli athletes in 1972 ©Getty Images

Ollan Cassell, an Olympic gold medallist in 1964 revealed later that Matthews had unveiled a banner in the Olympic Village bearing the words "Down with Brundage".

Jesse Owens, the revered quadruple gold medallist from Berlin 1936, was called in to mediate and a biography of US athletics coach Bill Bowerman written by marathoner Kenny Moore records that Bowerman met Brundage in the Olympic Village.

"I felt they hadn't meant to be disrespectful," Bowerman had said. "You cannot expect on an Olympic squad of 60 to have everybody act like army privates."

It seems that Brundage had accepted the apology providing that the USOC also agreed. It is a reaction which seems somewhat uncharacteristic of Brundage.

Earlier in the year he had flatly refused to meet Austrian skier Karl Schranz to discuss his expulsion from the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo for infringing amateur regulations.

"He told me we don’t talk to individual athletes," Schranz told insidethegames.

The IOC Executive Board had a full agenda when it convened towards the end of the Munich Olympics. Led by octogenarian Brundage, only two members of the Executive Board were under 60 years of age, which led Moore to describe them as "a bunch of crotchety old men".

USOC President Clifford Buck and IOC member Roby were summoned to the meeting. There they were told that the world athletics authorities "had complained strongly".

IOC minutes record that Roby and Buck "agreed entirely and apologised profusely that members of their team should behave in such a way". Brundage reminded the USOC that this was the second time that such an incident had occurred involving American athletes.

Vince Matthews was part of the victorious US 4x400m relay squad in Mexico, where all wore black berets ©Getty Images
Vince Matthews was part of the victorious US 4x400m relay squad in Mexico, where all wore black berets ©Getty Images

Brundage bitterly recalled the demonstration in 1968 by 200m medallists Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who had stood heads bowed with gloved fists raised. Brundage had described the protest as a "nasty demonstration" and the work of "warped mentalities and cracked personalities".

At those Games Matthews had won relay gold as member of the victorious 4x400m squad and had worn the symbolic black beret and glove on the podium.

It was clear that the events of Mexico 1968 helped influence the degree of punishment handed down when the IOC released a statement which revealed the fate of Matthews and Collett.

"After the insulting display of the two American athletes given in the stadium, the Executive Board decided these two athletes had broken rule 26 and would therefore be eliminated from taking part in any future competition", it read.

"The USOC has apologised and has been cautioned about future competitors."

The USOC's own official report of the Games described the actions of the runners as "either a planned or spontaneous display of bad manners".

Matthews and Collett, it said, "refused to show respect for their country’s flag or anthem or the printed rules of the IOC".

When the ban was announced, their team-mate John Smith was cornered by a television crew in the Olympic Village. "I very upset because my colleague, a very close friend of mine has been banned from track for the rest of his life," Smith said.

"We black people don't have much. At least we can run. We can't even run now."

Tommie Smith, Carlos and Australia's Peter Norman are now seen as heroic figures who made an important statement for equality and human rights.

Many now believe the time has come for the Olympic Movement to see the 1972 protest by Matthews and Collett in the same new light.

Lewis has written to the IOC and has even asked it to consider awarding the Olympic Order to the pair

Lewis has the support of North American, Central American and Caribbean Athletic Association President Mike Sands and the sporting community throughout the region.

In 1972, the IOC was also called to investigate two other podium demonstrations.

In a hotly-disputed men's basketball final, the clock was controversially restarted and the Soviets scored what proved to be the winning basket to beat the US. The sense of injustice ran deep with the American team who refused to participate in the medal ceremony.

Lord Killanin, a member of the Executive Board, suggested that "all the teams should move up", though eventually the IOC agreed to leave the silver medallists' podium empty.

Although it was agreed the American team were "flaunting" the ruling of the International Basketball Federation, no action was taken against them.

The IOC also discussed the actions of the Pakistan men's hockey team who had been furious at umpiring decisions during their final defeat against West Germany.

During the ceremony they twirled their medals and put them in their shoes, a bucket of water was thrown at International Hockey Federation President Rene Frank and according to evidence given to the IOC Executive Board, even the doctor taking doping samples had been assaulted.

The IOC's decision this year to recognise Jim Thorpe as the sole decathlon and pentathlon gold medallist from Stockholm 1912 could give campaigners hope
The IOC's decision this year to recognise Jim Thorpe as the sole decathlon and pentathlon gold medallist from Stockholm 1912 could give campaigners hope

Many of the players were handed a life ban making them ineligible for the 1973 Hockey World Cup.

Yet in the years that followed, the players were cleared to take part in the Montreal 1976 Olympics.

Perhaps campaigners for Matthews and Collett can draw some encouragement from the IOC's decision this year to agree that Jim Thorpe to be recognised as the sole champion of the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.

Thorpe fell foul of the strict regulations on amateur status in force at the time by accepting a small sum to play semi-professional baseball.

Originally denied the medals in his lifetime, they eventually were restored to his family in the 1980s as joint champion before this year's decision was reached.

Perhaps even more powerfully, there is a litany of doping offenders who were permitted to resume their careers after a short ban.

Any reinstatement would come too late for Collett who died in 2010, but even so, many in sport would welcome the gesture for what is now seen as a protest against social inequality.