By Gary Anderson

September 9 - Tommie Smith has said athletes need to make up their own minds about protesting against anti-gay laws during Sochi 2014Tommie Smith, the American who raced to gold in the 200 metres at Mexico City 1968 before famously performing the Black Power salute, has said that athletes have a choice to make at Sochi 2014 regarding the controversial anti-gay laws introduced by the Russian Government.

The 69-year-old says it is down to individual athletes to decide whether they feel the need to protest against the anti-gay legislation signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in July, that bans "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships", and imposes severe fines on those who do and on anyone organising or taking part in gay pride rallies.

"Athletes got to make their own minds up," Smith said.

"It's always a question about issues.

"Like it 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."

When Smith was competing at Mexico 1968, the civil rights movement in the United States was at its height and following his victory in the 200m, where he set a world record time of 19:83sec, finishing ahead of Australian Peter Norman and teammate John Carlos, both Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of their national anthem in protest against the poor treatment of African-Americans.

Tommie Smith (centre) and John Carlos (right) perform the Black Power salute at the Mexico City 1968 Olympic Games Tommie Smith (centre) and John Carlos (right) perform the Black Power salute at the Mexico City 1968 Olympic Games

Both athletes were expelled from the Games by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and subjected to threats and abuse when they returned to the US, and Smith has warned athletes that they could face similar consequences if any protests are made in Sochi.

"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."

Despite indicating that he does not necessarily agree with a homosexual lifestyle due to his religious background, Smith said he respects everyone's beliefs and choices before adding that any athlete protests in Sochi should be made in numbers and have a clear message.

The anti-gay legislation signed off by Russian President Vladimir Putin has caused widespread protestsThe anti-gay legislation signed off by Russian President Vladimir Putin has caused widespread protests

"Masses change things," said Smith, who has coached college track and field for more than 30 years.

"Individuals are destroyed.

"Like what happened to me.

"The masses will change things.

"Otherwise we wouldn't have Presidents, we would have chaos.

"Whatever language they [athletes] speak, they should have their verbs, adverbs, adjectives and conjunctions together so people can understand exactly what they're saying."

Last month, international gay rights group Pride House International called on all competitors of the same gender to hold hands at Sochi 2014 in protest against the new law, while there have been calls from a number of gay and civil rights campaigners for athletes to boycott the Olympics, which take place in the Russian city on February 7-23 next year.

At the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships in Moscow last month Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro and sprinter Moa Hjelmer were warned by Swedish Olympic Committee head Stefan Lindeberg about their conduct after the pair wore rainbow coloured nail varnish in what they called a "silent protest" against the anti-gay legislation.

Russian Olympic pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva criticised the actions of the Swedish athletes calling them "disrespectful" before backing the Russian Government's stance.

However, the world record holder later claimed that her comments were misinterpreted. 

Contact the writer of this story at [email protected]

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