Olympics (Sochi - old)

Sochi Olympians face similar choice to Tommie Smith

With concerns mounting over anti-gay laws in Russia, athletes headed to the Sochi Olympics will be faced with choices akin to 1968 gold-medallist and protester Tommie Smith.

Gold medallist was expelled for Black Power salute on podium in 1968

Tommie Smith's impactful Black Power salute on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics earned him the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the ESPY Awards on July 16, 2008. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

When Tommie Smith bowed his head down and thrust a black-gloved fist toward the sky from the top step of the Olympic podium 45 years ago, he had made a personal decision to make a statement in the battle for human rights.

With questions swirling over an anti-gay law in Russia, which will host the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games in February, today's athletes are faced with a similar choice, Smith said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"Athletes got to make their own minds up," Smith said on the sidelines of an athletics meet Sunday in Rieti, Italy, where he was honouring the memory of recently deceased Italian sprinter Pietro Mennea.

"It's always a question about issues," Smith said. "Like I was back in '68, when it was a human rights issue.

"Now it's a gay rights issue. They have to make their minds up how they feel about a particular situation.

"They need to figure it out. I won't do it for them, I have my own feelings."

As a Christian from a biblical background, the 69-year-old Smith is not a firm supporter of gays.

"Do I approve of it? I don't believe so, because I believe in the bible and it doesn't really give leeway in this," Smith said. "But there are people who believe in it because that is their belief and I respect that belief."

Smith won the 200 metres in world-record time at the 1968 Mexico Summer Games then was expelled from them, along with bronze medallist and American teammate John Carlos, for their protest during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner in the name of African-American civil rights. They returned home to threats and found themselves ostracized.

Smith said athletes shouldn't expect more leniency from the International Olympic Committee this time.

"They [the IOC] counselled me into what I should or should not do," he said. "I did what I thought and I suffered the consequences.

"It's simple and clear: If the IOC says no and they do [protest], they suffer the consequences. One way or the other. The IOC is the grandmaster of the Olympic Games, not the athletes."

On Sunday, a senior IOC member said sponsors are "afraid" of the fallout of possible demonstrations in Sochi.

"I think this could ruin a lot for all of us," marketing commission chairman Gerhard Heiberg said at the IOC general assembly in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

"We have to be prepared."

IOC president Jacques Rogge said the Olympic body will remind athletes to refrain from any protests or political gestures during the Feb. 7-23 Sochi Games.

The law, which Russia President Vladimir Putin signed in July, makes it illegal to expose minors to information that portrays these relationships as normal or attractive. The law imposes hefty fines, while also subjecting foreign citizens to up to 15 days in prison.

Putin has no intention of allowing a gay pride parade during the Olympics. He recently signed a decree banning all demonstrations and rallies in Sochi throughout the Winter Games.

But Smith suggested that athletes have a better chance of effecting change if they band together.

"Masses change things. Individuals are destroyed. Like what happened to me," he said. "The masses will change things. Otherwise, we wouldn't have presidents, we would have chaos."

And if they do decide to protest, Smith advises preparing a crystal-clear message.

"Whatever language they speak, they should have their verbs, adverbs, adjectives and conjunctions together, so people can understand exactly what they're saying," said Smith, who turned to coaching and teaching after his athletics career was derailed.

For more than 30 years, Smith coached track and field and taught sociology and health, first at Oberlin College in Ohio, then at Santa Monica College in California.

He's retired from teaching now, but still coaches and speaks in public.

"I have a love for the educational process outside of the classroom," Smith said. "I teach from a universal level of my experiences and my sociological background."