London 2012 - Where are they now? Silent protestor Tommie Smith

Wed, 21 Mar 18:41:00 2012

Tommie Smith used his gold medal victory in the 200 metres at the 1968 Mexico Olympics to make one of the most symbolic protests of the civil rights movement.

US athletes Tommie Smith (C) and John Carlos (R) raise their gloved fists in the Black Power salute to express their opposition to racism in the USA during the US national anthem, after receiving their medals 17 October 1968 - 0

Silent gesture

October 16 1968 was a big day for American athletics.

Tommie Smith of the USA won Olympic gold in the 200 metres at Mexico City's Olympic Stadium. In doing so, the Texas-born sprinter beat his own world record and became the first man ever to run break the 20-second barrier in the discipline.

Smith was joined on the podium by compatriot John Carlos, who finished third behind Australia's Peter Norman.

But the day is not remembered for American glory on the track, but for a symbolic moment of a struggle in the Land of the Free that was far greater and more important than any in the sporting arena.

As the American flag was raised and The Star-Spangled Banner was played, the two men who should have been standing in glorious reverence were sending out a strong message to the watching world.

Smith and Carlos took to the podium wearing no shoes. Both bowed their heads and raised a single fist - each sporting a black glove – adopting the Black Power salute in support for equal civil rights for African Americans. The pair also wore badges bearing the initials of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organisation devoted to using the international sports arena to protest against discrimination and persecution the world over. The OPHR had been the idea of sociologist Harry Edwards, who had initially asked athletes to boycott the Games in protest. In the end, their presence resonated much more.

Smith and Carlos left the podium to boos from some spectators in the stadium, but those could not be heard the following day when the silent protest made front pages the world over.

"If I win I am an American, not a black American," Smith said in a press conference afterwards. "But if I did something bad then they would say 'a Negro'. We are black and we are proud of being black.

"Black America will understand what we did tonight."

After seeing two athletes co-opting their prominent position to make a political statement, the International Olympic Committee was forced to act upon the breach of their regulations.

A spokesman for the IOC described it as a "deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit," and two days later the pair were expelled from the Olympic village and sent home.

While they may have left Mexico admonished by the authorities, they returned to the US as heroes for those fighting for civil rights at a pivotal time in the movement, with the nation still reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King earlier in the year.

Smith's actions on the podium may have been controversial, but they have lasted far longer in the memory than even his incredible exploits on the track that day, when he set a world record that lasted for 11 years and has to date only been bettered by three man: Pietro Mennea, Michael Johnson and Usain Bolt.

What has he been up to since?

Like Carlos, Smith was largely ostracised by the athletics community upon his return to America. Neither man was considered for any ensuing major championships, making an Olympic return impossible.

However, back at their own university of San Jose State, they were heralded as heroes by the students, who paraded them around campus.

In a 2008 interview with the Socialist Worker, Smith explained how his silent protest was the only way he felt able to make his voice heard.

"It was a long time before I realised how important the protest was," he said.

"Back in 1968 being from the backwoods of Texas, it wasn't an easy thing for me to pull out the words that would make people understand how my heartfelt.

"What we did was a silent gesture, but it was heard around the world. Now I have the words and I'm explaining it. We’re doing a pretty good job and people are coming to understand it."

After leaving San Jose, he spent three unsuccessful years as a pro American footballer with the Cincinnati Bengals.

He returned to athletics in a coaching capacity as an assistant professor of physical education at Oberlin College, Ohio, where he also taught sociology.

In 1978, a decade after his stand in Mexico, Smith was inducted into the US National Track and Field Hall of Fame. It was a gesture of not only how his protest had been belatedly recognised by the establishment, but also of how the national consciousness as a whole had begun to shift in the wake of what had gone on in the years before.

As more time has passed, the true significance of Smith and Carlos's protest has shone through and they have received many honours in recent years.

In 2005, San Jose State erected a statue depicting the pair, whilst Smith has since received such commendations as the Arthure Ashe courage award and was named Sportsman of the Millennium by the California Black Sports Hall of Fame.

Norman, who had supported the pair in their protest on the podium and wore an OPHR badge as he stood beside them, died in 2006. Both Smith and Carlos were pall bearers at his funeral, where Smith paid tribute by telling the Australian media: "(He was) a man who believed right could never be wrong.

"Peter Norman's legacy is a rock. Stand on that rock. Peter shall always be my friend. The spirit shall prevail."

In 2007, Smith put his life story into words in his autobiography, Silent Gesture.

At that time, Barack Obama was waging his ultimately successful campaign to become the first African American President of the United States.

Asked by the Socialist Worker if he felt his actions helped kick off the process that ended with Obama in the White House, Smith said: "That is not because Tommie Smith stood on the victory stand – it is because so many before me and after me stood up too."

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