By Kris Rhim
As runners made the turn on the 200-meter final of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic games, American sprinter John Carlos looked like he had a gold medal secured.
But his teammate Tommie Smith had other plans.
The 6-foot-3 San Jose State University student used his almost nine-foot stride to glide past Carlos, raising his fists before the finish line in celebration to win the gold in a world-record time of 19.83 seconds.
Despite the historic finish, it was Smith and Carlos’ fists that would be remembered.
The two sprinters received their medals on the winners’ podium shoeless with black socks on to represent poverty. Smith and Carlos then raised their black-gloved fists with their heads bowed during the playing of the national anthem.
The two sprinters’ gesture at the Olympic games would earn them intense scrutiny and cost them their careers. Still, their courage inspired many around the country to take action in their respective communities, including at Springfield College.
“Sacrifice is a necessity,” Smith told The Student. “Being a Black young athlete, not many people wanted to see your academic prowess. Only how fast you could run and how good you could make them feel. Everyone wants to be a winner — even if they have to win vicariously through you.”
Over fifty years since that day, at a time when America is as divided as it’s ever been, Smith will be the guest lecturer at the eighth annual Martin Luther King Jr. lecture at Springfield College on Feb. 18.
He will focus on the theme, “Power of a Dream. Unity wins.” Smith is familiar with the Birthplace, as one of his teammates at the ’68 Olympics was Springfield College graduate Tom Waddell.
Waddell finished sixth in the decathlon and was an activist in his own right. He made significant contributions to the LGBTQ+ community, including founding The Gay Olympic games, now called The Gay Games.
As Black athletes prepared for the 1968 Olympics, America was deeply divided on war, race and politics. Young people took action and demanded change like never before, with student takeovers and protests across the country.
In April of 1968, just months before the Olympics, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, which sparked riots in major cities across the country.
Muhammad Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam war after being drafted in 1967. He was sentenced to five years in prison, a $10,000 fine, and banned from boxing for three years.
Ali told reporters, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
In 1967 Carlos, Smith, and many other Black athletes, including Lew Alcindor (later to be known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar), advocated for a boycott of the 1968 Olympic Games as a part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, unless four conditions were met.
The conditions were: In protest of their white minority rule, South Africa and Rhodesia were uninvited to participate in the games; Muhammad Ali’s boxing title needed to be restored; Avery Brundage needed to step down as president of the International Olympic Committee; More African-American coaches needed to be hired.
While these demands were not met, many Black athletes decided to go to the games and make statements individually.
Shoeless, with their fists in the air at the podium, Carlos and Smith donned the white and green Olympic Project For Human Rights badges.
Peter Norman, an Australian sprinter and silver medalist in the 200-meters, also wore the badge on the podium. Norman would receive intense scrutiny in Australia for wearing the button.
As Smith, Carlos, and Norman left the podium to the sound of loud booing, The International Olympic Committee (IOC) threatened that the entire U.S Olympic team would be expelled from the games if swift action wasn’t taken with the two American sprinters.
The following day, the United States Olympic Committee (now known as the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee) sent Smith and Carlos home from the Olympics and banned them from future competition.
Devastated, Smith sat on the just over four-hour plane ride from Mexico City to Los Angeles and wondered what was next. A double major in military science and sociology, Smith still had to finish school at San Jose State and had a wife and a sixth-month-old son without a job to support them.
“It was very painful,” Smith said. “I had to recoup at that time because I was dissed by society, people were saying what I did on the victory stand was a militancy, what I did not represent the flag. What I did on the victory stand should not have been done, but they were not me.”
The last thing on Smith’s mind was how courageous the act was. He hadn’t realized that his fist inspired young people all over the country and became one of the most iconic photos ever taken.
Donald Brown, a graduate of the Springfield College class of 1969 and the first president of the Springfield College Afro-Am society, said that Smith and Carlos “empowered” Black students.
“We began greeting each other with a raising of the fist; some of us even had black gloves,” Brown said while laughing. “Tommie Smith and John Carlos empowered us in terms of standing up, being courageous, and doing things for our people. It contributed in a mighty way to the establishment of the Afro-Am society. We wanted to be courageous like Tommie Smith and John Carlos.”
Springfield College students would take action as they presented demands to Springfield administration, followed by a takeover of the Administration building in 1969 and Massasoit Hall in 1970.
As Smith got off the plane at the Los Angeles airport faced by more news reporters than he could count, it marked a new phase in his life. He finished school, spent some time playing professional football in the AFL, and served as a coach and teacher at Santa Monica College for 27 years.
Over 50 years after sending Smith and Carlos home, the USOPC inducted the sprinters into their Hall of Fame. The IOC has yet to recognize or apologize to Carlos or Smith.
One thing still bothers Smith about that day in Mexico City and it isn’t what one would expect.
“When I finished that race, the time on the electric clock was 19.72, and later I learned that the time was 19.83,” Smith said with a smile. “I don’t know how a time could go from 19.72, and later it’s 19.83. That still has to be reckoned with, and no one wants to reckon with that. But I know what I saw.”
Smith still follows track and field and says that he is still his favorite runner. He predicts that he could finish a 200 in “about a day and a half.”
Just a little slower than in ’68.
Photo: Springfield College