Former athlete Tommie Smith, a symbol of anti-racism, is worried about 'the world'. GETTY IMAGES

The former American sprinter and Mexico 1968 Olympic champion, famous for his raised fist gesture as an anti-racist protest, claims in an interview with AFP that he has no successors in the fight against discrimination and states that "things couldn't be worse" in his home country.

Tommie Smith's gesture will forever be seen as an iconic image. His raised fist on the podium at Mexico 1968 in protest against racial discrimination, made at the height of his career when he was just 24, earned him a lifetime ban from athletics for violating the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) rules against political statements.

The American sprinter who had won gold in the 200metre race, protested against racism and paid the price. More than 50 years have passed and the former athlete is very concerned about the current state of world affairs. Smith believes that today's athletes are less political than in the past, although the fight against racism must continue, even in the United States where, according to him  "things could not be worse".

In an era where many feel individualism has overtaken the ability to protest for the common good and that people tend to think more about themselves tan social issues, Smith stands among the highly concerned. "I think athletes are now more focused on themselves in terms of improving their times so that they can go further in the future. Because in the past, athletes suffered consequences when they tried to improve the system," Smith told AFP.

Smith, 80, is in Paris to visit a major new Olympic exhibition. With just over a month to go before the Olympic Games begin, the icon is trying to push young people to get involved. "I encourage them to follow their own minds and do what they think is necessary," said the former 200m world record holder. After retiring from athletics, Smith spent 35 years as a high school teacher.

Smith is not the only one in the news for the recurring complaints and protests. Sport has become a vehicle for protest against injustice through the years. American football player Colin Kaepernick started a movement to take a knee in protest against racism some years ago in the NFL, and other sports have embraced LGBTQ+ rights, for example.

The IOC continues to invoke Article 50 of its Olympic Charter to prohibit any political expression by athletes on the field of play. The desire is to keep the Games neutral and separate from controversial issues. But people see global events as a unique opportunity to protest, make their voices heard and make a difference. This is what Smith did, risking his sporting career and reputation with the raised fist that angered the Olympic authorities.

Smith became a symbol for his protest and his defense of universal rights. GETTY IMAGES
Smith became a symbol for his protest and his defense of universal rights. GETTY IMAGES

The world today is fraught with tension. The conflict in Gaza, another flashpoint in Ukraine and China's stance on Taiwan. Just before the Games, France will hold elections. Extremist parties will take part, and anti-immigration positions could gain ground.

All of this worries Smith, who is committed not only to black rights but to universal human rights. "I'm worried about the world, not just athletically, but politically," Smith said. "There are a lot of things happening now that didn't happen then. The world is changing... And that could be dangerous for a lot of people," he added.

For the former athlete, his country, the United States, is a problem. Donald Trump could also make a comeback in the US elections. Smith is very clear about this. "It couldn't be worse," he said.

During his visit to the "Olympism, a History of the World" exhibition, he posed in front of a giant photograph of fellow American sprinter John Carlos and Australian Peter Norman with him on the podium in Mexico

On the podium, Norman, a white silver medallist, wore a badge supporting the Olympic Project for Human Rights. The organisation was founded by Smith and Carlos to combat racism in sport.

Norman was never officially sanctioned, but returned home in disgrace and was subsequently ignored by the Australian selectors. However, the "forgotten man" of the Mexico protest was hailed by Smith as "one of the greatest people I have ever met."

The obvious question was what the world might ask today. Would he repeat his gesture on the podium if he could turn back time and run in the French capital? "I'd be the same guy," he laughed. "I don't hate anyone. I respect you like my own brother."