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Kenny Moore
August 05, 1991
In '68, Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists for racial justice
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August 05, 1991

A Courageous Stand

In '68, Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists for racial justice

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The black athletes threw themselves into the summer of training. At the Echo Summit camp they lived in trailers near a red Tartan track that enclosed an infield of granite boulders and pines. The scene resembled an elaborate bonsai garden. The long-jump runway ran out of the forest. Upon it, Bob Beamon was the most deerlike.

Evans, James, Hines, Greene, Coleman, Beamon, long jumper Ralph Boston, hurdlers Willie Davenport and Erv Hall, sprinters Ronnie Ray Smith and Mel Pender, quarter-milers Ron Freeman and Vince Matthews, even Carlos, did the work of their lives. "You'd go to the track at dawn," recalls Freeman, "to sneak in four or five 200s, and here would be Lee or John already doing them."

"We trained to beat each other, but we shared mutual admiration," says Carlos. "That was the great chemistry, the texture of that summer. Tahoe was a fun resort. Guys came and guys left. And you could look at every one and know whether he was going to make the team."

Carlos had suffered a torn right hamstring at the time of the Los Angeles trials, so he had been advanced to the Tahoe finals by official fiat—but, oddly, was permitted to run only the 200 meters. "Stan Wright had been Jim Hines's coach at Texas Southern, and I think he was protecting Hines by keeping me out of the 100," says Carlos. "Then, at a meet in Vancouver, Tommie and I and Jim Kemp and Charlie Mays raced the No. 1 U.S. 400-meter-relay team [Greene, Pender, Ronnie Ray Smith and Hines]. I asked Wright, 'If we win, can we have a runoff for the relay?' He said yes. We won, but there was no runoff."

These events offended Carlos's considerable self-esteem. He began to look to the 200 in the final Olympic trials as an occasion for satisfaction.

Smith, recovering from diarrhea he had contracted on a trip to Germany, reached the final trials in less than peak condition. He ran only the 200.

"Carlos was ready," he says, "but I was distracted. The USOC had sent us a letter saying any athlete who didn't perform in honor of the United States would be sent home from Mexico. Ralph Boston—who'd originally been against the boycott—drafted what we replied: 'Get off our backs and let us train.' "

In the starting blocks, Smith put it to himself that he had no choice but to make the team. "They were all in my head, all the calls, all the meetings, all the racists screaming for me to fail."

At the gun, the muscular Carlos, a magnificent sprinter of turns, bolted to a huge lead, then held off Smith in the stretch to win in a seeming world record of 19.7. But Carlos had worn shoes with dozens of tiny spikes. The rules allowed but six. "They're not spikes," he said. "They're brushes."

"Officials were out on the track before I'd come to a stop, telling me it wouldn't count," says Carlos now. "They loved telling me that." The record would not be accepted. Thus his great race, rather than establishing his true sprinting supremacy, became one more case in which he felt wronged by authority. "I always used to say, 'We ain't windup toys,' " says Carlos. " 'We don't hop out of the closet and perform. I'm a man unto myself.' That never seemed to penetrate."

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