Victory Salute

olympic black power statue.

Photographer: Hunter Ridenour (2022)

Artwork: Victory Salute (Olympic Black Power)
: Rigo 23
Year: 2005
Commissioned by: San José State University


Designed by artist, Rigo 23, this larger-than lifesize fiberglass and mosaic monument, centrally placed on San José State University’s Tower Lawn, depicts the heroic and symbolic action of two African-American athletes and San José State University alumni, Tommie Smith (24) and John Carlos (23), who during the medal ceremony for the 200-meter running final in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City on October 16, 1968, performed the Black power salute, raising their fists in silent protest.

Smith, in the first place spot and Carlos, in third, planned and executed the gesture to draw attention to injustice and inequality faced by Black Americans but were greeted with boos and threats from the audience. Rendering the iconic moment through details such as the gloved hands and shoeless feet of the two athletes, Rigo 23 shows that the gesture was not accidental but planned for maximal symbolic effect.

Reenacted at SJSU in monumental form, Smith and Carlos’s protest and call towards justice is uplifted and celebrated. The second place podium spot, left empty, invites spectators to imagine themselves alongside the two icons and to follow their example in pledging to take responsibility and action towards eradicating anti-Black racism and bias. 

Public Art as Resistance

Clad in the colors of the nation that denied African American civil rights, Smith and Carlos took a stand to draw global attention to inequality in the United States. Portrayed larger than life, their action on the medal podium echoes the chants of “Black Lives Matter,” the continuation of work to achieve dignity, equality, and justice for all citizens of this country.

The statue poses a paradox for viewers. Demonstrating the harnessing of education, self-determination, and accepting of consequences to challenge the inequities of the status quo, while located on a campus of higher education at a time when those seeking an education and independence are doing so at significant financial cost to themselves, their families, and their futures. The work for dignity, equity, and justice has and continues to take on obstacles that are meant to slow and discourage progress.

Movements for equity find support among the unsung who go without recognition. The absence of silver medal winner Peter Norman of Australia, who supported Smith and Carlos’ protest, is a reminder that all people have a responsibility to humanity to stand up against intolerance and bigotry. 

Continue Your Walk

As you walk to your next stop, you’ll notice two notable arts and cultural institutions, the San José Museum of Art and the Cathedral Basilica of San José. Fine arts housed in cultural institutions can create unintentional entry barriers where public art does not. Sculptures placed on sidewalks and murals found on building walls are freely critiqued by anyone at any time which in itself is a means of resistance to ticketed and invited art viewing experiences.

For the next public art, look for the restaurant, Mezcal - and peek around the side of their building for a fantastic view.

Additional Sources