The oldest track & field blog on the internet

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Bro Does Some Track Writing

Below is an article my brother wrote for work. The text of the e-mail he sent me:

Thought I'd send along a write-up I did on the Smith and Carlos thing for an online subscription site we have at work -- normally I just herd a group of pastor/writers, run the weekly conference call, and compile, edit, and format their submissions for a weekly update... but since this coming Sunday's lectionary gospel text includes the bit where Jesus talks about his followers denying themselves and taking up their cross, it seemed like a natural illustration -- especially since even knowing all the hardship of the intervening years, they both felt so strongly that it was the right thing to do. So I put this in along with the usual stuff -- I included a lot of context because I thought it was important both to understand their motivations, and why so many might have felt threatened by the gesture.
While you may think my personal religion IS track & field, I merely see it as being like Elvis -- it's everywhere and in everything. Track & field from the pulpit is just recognition from others of what I believe: that our sport is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Read on.

A Living Example of Cross-Bearing: Tommie Smith and John Carlos

The call to cross-bearing is a difficult one — those who feel compelled by their conscience and belief in a higher calling to take an unpopular stance can look forward to unpleasant and even life-changing consequences. This kind of faith-based “civil disobedience” has a long history in America, particularly in the field of race relations. From antebellum abolitionism to the civil rights movement, there have been untold numbers who have suffered personally by taking action that was meant to shock a complacent public into seeing injustice in its midst.

Return to Mexico City, a recent documentary airing on ESPN, revisited a notorious moment in this vein that from the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, involving sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos. It’s easy to forget with the distance of time what a turbulent year 1968 was, not just in America but throughout the world — in addition to Martin Luther King’s assassination, the ensuing riots in many inner cities, and mounting frustration over the inability of the civil rights movement to address economic inequality, there was continuing intense unrest over the Vietnam War, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, and the melee in Chicago during the Democratic convention. Internationally, 1968 also saw extended student riots in Paris and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. All of these events occurred in the six months prior to the first Olympics ever hosted by a developing, “Third World” country — and the first to take place in the new, satellite-driven media age where television beamed images around the world with unprecedented speed. Furthermore, that this extravaganza was overseen by an aging cadre with dictatorial powers, headed by IOC president Avery Brundage (a crusty old man who was fairly open about his racism and anti-Semitism), only served to escalate the tension.

In the months prior to the Olympics, there had been a movement encouraging prominent black American athletes to boycott the games. (The most prominent athlete to decline to participate was basketball star Lew Alcindor, soon to become known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.) Much of the impetus for this came from an organization called the Olympic Project for Human Rights, centered on the campus of San Jose State University in California. While San Jose sociology professor Harry Edwards served as the OPHR’s provocateur and public face, much of the actual behind-the-scenes work was done by athletes, including Tommie Smith and Lee Evans, who also happened to be two of the world’s top sprinters. As the Olympics approached, it became clear that while athletes in the major team sports could look forward to lucrative professional careers, it would be extremely self-destructive for most Olympic athletes to boycott the games and miss what they had been training years for (and lose the biggest stage any of them would ever have) — so it was decided there would be no boycott and that any form of protest would be left up to the individual athletes.

The American men’s track team assembled for the Mexico City games has been considered its greatest ever, and with astonishing winning displays from the likes of Bob Beamon (who smashed the long jump world record by more than 2 feet), Dick Fosbury (who completely redefined high jump technique), and Lee Evans amongst others, the reputation is well-deserved. Yet another amazing performance was turned in by Tommie Smith in the 200 meters, as he motored by San Jose State teammate John Carlos and Australian Peter Norman in the home stretch to set a new world record. However, that thrilling race is not what Smith and Carlos are remembered for. As they approached the winner’s stand afterwards to receive their medals, close observation revealed that they had discarded their racing spikes and were wearing simple black socks without any other footwear, as well as fairly large Olympic Project for Human Rights buttons pinned to the chests of their USA warm-up jackets. (Siver medalist Norman also sported an OPHR button that Smith and Carlos had given him.) As the American flag was slowly hoisted and the “Star-Spangled Banner” began to play over the stadium loudspeakers, the significance of Smith’s and Carlos’s attire soon became apparent — the men silently bowed their heads and each thrust one black-gloved fist high over their heads into the Mexican night.

The backlash over their action was swift — and predictable. Smith and Carlos became the center of a media feeding frenzy, and they were vilified by many back home who viewed their actions not as silent protest but as the menacing acts of militants who dishonored their country. (A young Chicago newspaper columnist referred to them as “black-skinned stormtroopers”; that writer was none other than current ESPN sportscaster Brent Musburger.) The IOC, furious at the protest, gave the United States team 24 hours to get Smith and Carlos out of the Olympic village — and the men soon returned home not to a rousing victory celebration, but as the sullen focus of a roiling controversy. While this was before today’s professional track circuit, any post-Olympic track careers the men may have had were also casualties of their action, as no one wanted to cross the IOC. (Less well known is that Peter Norman paid a price as well for his support of Smith and Carlos, as he was ostracized by Australian Olympic authorities.) In a word, for much of mainstream America Smith and Carlos were pariahs — and finding steady work even proved to be something of a challenge for a while.

The stress had a high human cost — nevertheless, they felt it was necessary to call attention to lingering inequality. Smith has said that: “The ridicule was great, but it went deeper than us personally. It went to our kids, our citizen brothers, and our parents. My mother died of a heart attack in 1970 as a result of pressure delivered to her from farmers who sent her manure and dead rats in the mail because of me. My brothers in high school were kicked off the football team, my brother in Oregon had his scholarship taken away. It was a fault that could have been avoided had I turned my back on the atrocities.” Carlos believes it that it led to his wife’s suicide in 1977, saying. “My family had to endure so much. They finally figured out they could pierce my armor by breaking up my family and they did that. But you cannot regret what you knew, to the very core of your person, was right” ( Contrasting perspectives on the events of that day even led to a serious wedge being driven between Smith and Carlos for many years, as this July 2008 Los Angeles Times article details (

Fortunately, there is something of a happy ending for Tommie Smith and John Carlos, many years later. San Jose State, their alma mater, has erected on its campus a statue honoring them and commemorating their Olympic protest, and last October they returned to the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City on the 40th anniversary of their medal-winning race, an event that led to a rapproachment between them. But when asked in the ESPN documentary if he would do it all over again, Carlos perhaps summed up best what it means to pick up and carry one’s cross. Mentioning that it’s “a heavy question,” knowing that it may have been the primary cause of his wife’s suicide, he says: “I’d do it again, knowing that it’s bigger than her life, or my life, or any one life.”

Several brief excerpts from Return to Mexico City can be viewed at the ESPN website:

For more information, see the following links:

No comments: