"I always put Lee on a pedestal," says James, now athletic director at Stockton State College in Pomona, N.J. "He wanted it more than anyone else. I was the time-set person. All year I'd prepared body and mind to run 43.9 in the Olympic final. Lee was the mind-set person, the competitor. I did run my 43.9. So he ran 43.8."
Too, the '68 Olympians had what no other U.S. team before or since has had, a six-week, high-altitude training camp before the final trials. The camp and the trials were at Echo Summit, above Lake Tahoe in the California Sierras.
All the quarter-milers, opponents in the trials and the Games, evinced remarkable closeness. "We shared training information in camp," says Freeman. "We worked our hardest. We sneaked out at dawn and stole workouts, and it wasn't for any TV contract or money or career. It was purely being the best we could be."
Their event served to keep them humble. "You could not woof in the 400," says James. "You could not brag. Somewhere Riggy would pay you back."
But the most powerful unifying force was what it meant to be a black American athlete in 1968. The two great moral struggles of this generation, civil rights and the war in Vietnam, were peaking. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in April, Robert Kennedy in June.
In the fall of 1967 at San Jose State, where Evans, Smith, 200-meter man John Carlos and 400-relay member Ronnie Ray Smith went to school, meetings to discuss housing discrimination against black athletes grew under the forceful leadership of sociology professor Harry Edwards into calls to use the prominence of blacks in sports to expose racism and demand reforms. "If they won't rent to us," Edwards asked, "why should we run for them?"
The result was a proposal, first voiced, as Evans recalls, by comedian/ activist Dick Gregory, for an Olympic boycott. The movement was named the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
"I always felt we would run I in the Olympics]," says Evans. "But fear of a boycott was leverage we should use. At a meeting in June we'd voted to run and maybe wear black armbands or something. Then, two weeks before the Games, [IOC president] Avery Brundage attacked us. He said we were lucky to be in America, lucky to be allowed on the team."
This, coupled with Brundage's push to have South Africa readmitted to the Olympics after being banned in 1964 because of apartheid, was the galvanizing provocation. "If he hadn't come out like that," says Evans, "I don't think anything would have happened."
The debate among black Olympians culminated at a meeting in Denver before the team left for Mexico. "It had evolved to a set of personal decisions," says James. "We were programmed to go for the gold. We would run."