In 1968 My Salute Was Needed ..Now It's Needed Even More; EXCLUSIVE WHY OLYMPIC REBEL TOMMIE IS STILL DEFIANT

The Mirror (London, England), August 21, 2004 | Go to article overview

In 1968 My Salute Was Needed ..Now It's Needed Even More; EXCLUSIVE WHY OLYMPIC REBEL TOMMIE IS STILL DEFIANT


Byline: DANIEL BOFFEY

GLOVED fists clenched in the air and heads bowed, Tommie Smith and John Carlos stand defiant as the Star-Spangled Banner plays.

In what should have been a moment full of personal glory and patriotic pride, the Olympic medal winners were instead sending out a message of defiance.

Their "Black Power" salutes from the podium in the 1968 Mexico City Games remain one of the most powerful images of any games.

The stark protest against racism back in the US helped to define an era of turbulent unrest.

Smith, the 200 metres gold medal winner, is now 60 and watching the Athens Games with interest. But the passion that burned within him as a 24-year-old still burns just as strong.

"As a child, I'd worked picking cotton in the fields," he recalls. "I had been down to the level where I had to survive by any means. This was another survival - by constitutional means.

"We were saying: 'We are black athletes and we have a responsibility to young kids coming up to point out the rights which we don't have.'

"Rights which were in the US constitution. Segregation on the team. Segregation in the classroom. All of this stuff was brought up by us. We weren't trying to make problems we were just trying to make the system better."

Both men believed black domination of American athletics was a result of racism, not of tolerance, as black students were herded into universities on sports scholarships and told not to study.

Smith and Carlos, who won bronze in the event, had initially been willing to join a boycott of the Games but, when that collapsed, resolved to use the podium to make their point.

Before the race, Smith drew the inside lane, his least favourite, and ran with a strained thigh muscle. He still won easily.

Carlos eased off as he approached the line but took bronze. They accepted their medals but as the music began, they ignored it. They removed their running shoes and were wearing black socks underneath. Smith also wore a black scarf and a black leather glove on his right hand. Carlos wore the left glove.

The protest got them slung out of the Olympic village, suspended from the Games and packed off home in disgrace. And back in America, these two great athletes became instant hate figures.

SMITH - now married to second wife Delois Jordan-Smith and a father-of-five - is athletics coach at Santa Monica College. And he receives death threats to this day.

"John and I were public enemy No.1 for a long time," he says. "Even now, people look at me and get out of my way.

"Only a couple of months ago, I had a letter that said: 'Hello ni**er Smith, we gonna send you tickets back to Africa.'

"But by the same token, I receive letters from people my age that say what happened on the victory stand wasn't malignant it was just before its time. They congratulate me on my beliefs and wish me well.

"Yesterday we were at a furniture store and a kid looked at my ring and asked what it was.

"I told him it's an Olympic ring. He laughed and said 'Sure' in disbelief. I said: 'You ain't never heard of Tommie Smith? He said: 'No, I ain't never heard of no Tommie Smith.'

"I said: 'You don't remember those two guys at the '68 Olympics who held their fists up on the victory stand'.

"He said: 'Oh, yeah, you mean those two old dudes who was kicked out 'cos they was wrong? …

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