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The State of Aloha

Tokyo will finally host the 2020 summer Olympic games this year. It was supposed to be last summer, but the pandemic put off 2020 to 2021. It will be the first games featuring surfing as a sport and that has drummed up a bit of controversy.

International surf competitions separate surfers from Hawai’i from the rest of the U.S. Kelly Slater of Florida and Lakey Peterson from Santa Barbara, Calif., represent the USA. Kauai’s Irons brothers and Maui’s Kai Lenny represent Hawai’i. But this traditional distinction will not be recognized in the Olympics.

Oahuans John John Florence and Carissa Moore will be surfing for the first time in their careers for Team USA — not Hawai’i. (A third surfer, Tatiana Weston-Webb, is from Princeville, Kauai, and is competing for Brazil.) And while it has created some controversy, this is not the first for locals and Hawaiians in the Olympics.

Florence and Moore, along with the other local Olympians, will join Duke Kahanamoku, who swam for Team USA in the three Olympic games in the early 20th century. He brought back to the islands three gold medals and two silver medals.

And just because we are lumped in with Team USA doesn’t mean the surfers from Hawai’i cannot assert their connection to the islands. It reminds me of an iconic moment in the modern Olympic Games when athletes had the courage to point out problems within their own country.

More than 50 years ago the world watched its best track stars race against each other in the Mexico City Olympic Games. Two Americans were heavily favored to win the 200-meter race. Tommie Smith was from a family of 12 and born in Clarksville, Texas. He moved to California and excelled as an athlete. John Carlos was born in the Bronx and raised in Harlem. His mother was an immigrant from the West Indies and his father was born in South Carolina and served in the First World War.

Smith and Carlos were politically conscious athletes. They helped form the Olympic Project for Human Rights, the OPHR, to counteract the media’s portrayal of Team USA as a feel-good story of racial harmony. But this was 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered in Memphis. Cities roiled with racial violence, and the war in Vietnam raged while students and protesters declared it an immoral and imperialist conflict against a small Asian nation seeking self-determination.

But all of that was background noise when it came to the final 200-meter race. The race got underway. Smith took the gold. It also looked for most of the race like Carlos was going to take the silver, but at the last leg the sprinter from Australia edged him out and took the silver down the last 50 meters.

Peter Norman was a working-class butcher’s son from Melbourne. His family were committed members of the Salvation Army, the evangelical group devoted to charity for the needy and the unshakable belief in the equality of human beings regardless of color or creed. Norman’s own country struggled with racial discrimination against its indigenous population and against immigration from non-European countries.

The three athletes hatched a plan as they waited to go to the podium. Carlos and Smith took off their shoes and stood in black socks. The socks symbolized the poverty-stricken Black neighborhoods across the U.S. They wore beads to protest lynch mobs. And of course, while the National Anthem played throughout the stadium, they bowed their heads and raised clenched fists — the symbol of Black power. For his part, Norman stood in solidarity with his fellow athletes. He allied himself with their movement by proudly wearing the badge of the OPHR.

The image of these three athletes in Mexico is iconic now. But at the time, it was shocking. The crowd was stunned into silence at first, but quickly started to jeer and hiss.

The athletes were stripped of their medals. Smith and Carlos returned to the U.S. reviled by sports institutions. They were accused of politicizing their sport. Norman received even harsher treatment. Despite qualifying for the 1972 Games, he did not make the Olympic team again. He tried coaching and still kept up with his running, but after an injury he slipped into depression, alcoholism and an addiction to pain medications. When Sydney hosted the Olympic Games in 2000, he was still snubbed. He died in 2006. Smith and Carlos were among his pallbearers.

These athletes have taught us that the countries they represent aren’t perfect. So yes, Hawai’i surfers are representing the U.S. as a whole, not the islands. If they make it to the podium, what will they do about it?

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”

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