But then there are others who do things that make us stand up and take notice even decades later. Tommie Smith and John Carlos are two such men.
It was 40 years ago at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City that Smith and Carlos strode to the podium to accept the gold and bronze medals they had won in the 200-meter sprint. But rather than just quietly accept their medals, the pair had something else in mind. Here's how David Davis, writing in Smithsonian, sets the scene:
Smith and Carlos, winners of the gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the event, had come to the ceremony dressed to protest: wearing black socks and no shoes to symbolize African-American poverty, a black glove to express African-American strength and unity. (Smith also wore a scarf, and Carlos beads, in memory of lynching victims.)
As the national anthem played and an international TV audience watched, each man bowed his head and raised a fist.
Smith and Carlos would pay a price for their protest. Back home, in a nation roiled by the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy, their protest landed like a lit match on a sea of gasoline. Avery Brundage, the American who was head of the International Olympic Committee, had the pair expelled from the Games, suspended from the U.S. Olympic team and sent home in disgrace.
Considering that Brundage was the same man who once praised the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin as the greatest ever, and who in his capacity as head of the US Olympic Committee, may very well have ejected two runners from the U.S. 4x100 relay team that year because they were Jewish, one has to wonder if his actions didn't serve as a badge of honor for Smith and Carlos.
The last 40 years haven't been easy for the pair, as they've paid a significant price for their protest. While many other American Olympians are rightly celebrated and honored, Smith and Carlos returned home to rage and anger instead of commercial endorsements. From my own perspective, whenever I hear ESPN's Michael Wilbon speak dismissively of the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid in 1980, I always experience a flashback to the image of Smith and Carlos with their fists raised defiantly in the air. I have little doubt that the two events are connected in Wilbon's mind, and perhaps many others.
What plaudits they have won have been long-delayed. Only a few weeks ago, ESPN awarded them the network's Arthur Ashe Courage Award at its annual ESPYs ceremony. The honor led columnist Jonah Goldberg to blast the network, an effort that was responded to in kind by The Nation's Dave Zirin.
Wherever one might stand politically, there's little doubt that night in Mexico City continues to be relevant today. It's impossible not to view China's brazen efforts to crack down on dissent, both foreign and domestic, prior to the Beijing Games as a direct tribute to the power that Carlos and Smith demonstrated so dramatically on the medal stand.
So you can continue to call Carlos and Smith's protest self-indulgent if you must. From where I sit, they were doing no more than indulging in a fundamental human right that the organizers of the Beijing Games are doing their level best to eradicate not only from the Games but suffocate in their own society as well -- just ask American Olympic champion Joey Cheek.