John Carlos, left, and Tommie Smith stand as they are recognized by President Barack Obama during a White House ceremony Thursday.

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It's been nearly 50 years since Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists during the national anthem

US Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun asked Smith and Carlos to be ambassadors for the organization

CNN  — 

Athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos extending gloved fists skyward during the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” remains a moment etched in US history.

Their gesture is an iconic image of the turbulent 1960s. But the collective aftermath around the country wasn’t one of universal jubilation.

After Smith and Carlos won gold and bronze in the 200-meters sprint at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City they were shunned for their actions on the podium, kicked off the US team and sent home.

American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos bow their heads and raise gloved fists in protest at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

Decades later, Smith and Carlos are getting their due. US Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun asked them to be ambassadors for the organization.

On Thursday, Smith, 72, and Carlos, 71, joined Team USA members at the White House as President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama honored the 2016 US Olympic and Paralympic teams.

The duo has been mentioned in the news often lately, and it’s not just because 2016 was an Olympic year.

The focus on their actions has been sharpened by current athletes expressing their frustration over police brutality and racism in America. That movement kicked into overdrive when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem.

“Their powerful silent protest in the 1968 Games was controversial, but it woke folks up and created greater opportunity for those that followed,” Obama said of Smith and Carlos.

Smith and Carlos’ cleats are in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Nearby are the cleats of another historic Olympian, Jesse Owens.

Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Germany, during Adolf Hitler’s reign. Family members of the 17 African American Olympians from those 1936 Games were also in attendance Thursday.

As for this year’s Olympians, Obama focused on several “firsts.”

Those included Simone Biles becoming the first American to win four golds in gymnastics in a single Olympic Games; Ibtihaj Muhammad becoming the first Olympian to compete in hijab; and Simone Manuel becoming the first African-American woman to win individual gold in swimming.

It was notable how many women the President named. That’s because the US women earned 61 medals. They outpaced the previous women’s high of 58 from London 2012.

If American women had competed as their own country, they would have ranked fourth among all nations in the overall medal chart and tied for second in gold medals with 27.

There were 292 women on the 555-member US Olympic roster this year, marking the most women who have ever competed for any nation in Olympic history.

“The reason our country is so proud of this year’s Team USA is 2016 belonged to America’s women Olympians, I mean, no question,” Obama said.

Obama also referenced the diversity of Team USA, saying that there isn’t a child in America who can’t look at the Olympic team and see themselves somewhere.

“We’ve become something more than just the sum of our parts,” Obama said. “We’ve become Americans together. And there’s something special about that.

“All races, all faiths, all traditions, all orientations, all marching together under that same proud flag. Not bound by a creed or a color but by our devotion to an enduring set of ideals that we’re all created equal, that we can think and worship and love as we please and that we can pursue our own version of happiness.”

Team USA presented to the President two surfboards with signatures from the 2016 Olympians and Paralympians. The gift marks the fact that surfing will make its Olympic debut in 2020 in Tokyo.

It also could come in handy for a president originally from Hawaii.

“These are great gifts, and I’m going to have a lot of time to surf next year,” Obama joked.