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Kenny Moore
August 12, 1991
The lives of the U.S. Olympians who protested racism in 1968 were changed forever
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August 12, 1991

The Eye Of The Storm

The lives of the U.S. Olympians who protested racism in 1968 were changed forever

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Smith began to let his weight climb, as if he could hide under a layer of suet the perfect body that had helped bring him grief. He hit 237. His racing weight had been 190.

Then he met Denise Kyle, a recent Oberlin graduate. "She knew I was fiery," he says with some astonishment, "but she kind of settled into a relationship anyway." They were married in 1976, at a Smith family reunion in Fresno.

In 1978, Smith was denied tenure at Oberlin. It was the academic equivalent of being fired. He was the last of Scott's people to go. "I fought it," he says, "because their excuse was to say my coaching and teaching were below department standards, and that was not true. But I found no support. They could say anything about me they wanted. That thing I felt bracing my spine was the wall."

Harold Smith, who managed the Muhammad Ali Track Club in Santa Monica, was looking for a coach. Tommie Smith drove out to see him and said, "Hey, I need a job. I can't pay the rent." The reply was one of the more galling phrases to fall on the ears of a desperate man.

"You're too good for us," said Harold Smith.

Tommie Smith returned to Ohio and was contemplating the last resort—selling life insurance. He went home to California for good just when Proposition 13, the taxpayers' revolt, drastically reduced school budgets in the state. "I borrowed from my family," he says. "We used Denise's insurance, and she sold her house in Ohio to pay my brothers and sister back. She was pregnant with Danielle, the first of our three children. We endured some poverty. I applied to the Los Angeles sanitation department and the police department. We had to eat."

Then, Smith says, "The Lord helped." In September 1978, Santa Monica College, a two-year school with 23,000 students, hired Smith to coach men's track. He has been there ever since. "Protected," he says with a sarcastic grin. "Making it in respectable society."

Evans, meanwhile, had made the 1972 Olympic team as fourth man on the 1,600-meter relay. "Surest gold medal on the team," he said. But after Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett went one-two in the 400, they slouched with such pointed nonchalance on the victory stand that they were thrown out of the Munich Games by a supersensitive IOC for "disrespect." Since John Smith had been injured in the final of the 400, the U.S. couldn't field a full team for the relay. Evans never ran. "That was the biggest blow of my life," he says.

Evans went on to make a career of coaching in West African nations, developing sprinters and sending them to American universities. This was not his avenue of first choice, but no major U.S. school would hire him.

"I get the feeling that people are afraid of the class of '68 some," he says. "I feel I've been pushed aside because of that. I applied for the UCLA women's track position and was told that one reference had said he didn't know how I'd take NCAA pressure. I said, 'What? Do you know the notes I've gotten from Nigerian generals before the Uganda and Kenya meet?' " Evans is now the national coach of Qatar, a Middle Eastern emirate.

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