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As a transfer, Carlos was ineligible to compete for the Spartans in '67. But he worked out with the team—and he attended meetings of a movement called the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), the brainchild of a brilliant 24year-old graduate student named Harry Edwards, who'd played basketball and run track at San Jose State.
The outspoken Edwards had already drawn national attention to the plight of black college athletes: the dearth of black coaches, the housing discrimination black athletes faced in college towns. In the run-up to the Games, Edwards wanted to explode the myth that sports had become a citadel of interracial harmony and brotherhood. "We knew that was a bunch of nonsense because we were living it every day," he says.
THE POSSIBILITY of a boycott by black American athletes made international news, and even if it wasn't a serious option, it resulted in death threats to Edwards, Smith, Carlos and many others right up to the Games. On Oct. 16, at the end of his semifinal heat in the 200 meters in Mexico City, Smith felt a sharp pain in his left leg. He'd pulled his adductor muscle, but his first thought was that he'd been shot.
Smith iced the leg, went for a light jog, then tried a few sprints at less than 100%. The leg held up. Less than four hours later he and Carlos raced in the 200 final. Carlos led his teammate by 1 1/2 meters as they entered the straightaway. Then the 6'3", long-striding Smith blew past his fellow American with an otherworldly burst. He finished in 19.83 seconds, a world record that would hold up for 11 years. Carlos, who now claims that he gave the race to Smith, was also nipped at the line by Peter Norman of Australia, who would show his solidarity by wearing an OPHR button on the medal stand.
In the moments before the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos talked about how to proceed with some form of silent protest. They still can't agree on whose idea it was. While he declined to be interviewed for this story, Smith, 64, recounts in his autobiography, Silent Gesture, how his wife at the time had purchased a pair of gloves in Mexico City while shopping with Carlos's first wife, Kim. "I was thinking about wearing both gloves," Smith writes, "but what good would that do? That was when I talked to John about wearing one."
As the strains of The Star-Spangled Banner filled the Olympic stadium, the Americans, standing shoeless, bowed their heads, and each raised a gloved fist, creating one of the most searing images in the history of sports.
The reaction in Mexico City and back home was swift and sustained. Consider the backdrop. With the Vietnam War, the assassinations that year of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the tumult of the Democratic Convention in Chicago and riots in dozens of American cities that summer, "you had a lot going on," says Carlos.
While their gesture was everywhere described as a "black power salute," both men beg to differ. The focus of the OPHR, Smith writes, was "human rights, not civil rights, nothing to do with the [Black] Panthers or Black Power—all humanity, even those who denied us ours."
Smith and Carlos were suspended from the U.S. Olympic team, cast out of the Olympic Village and given 48 hours to leave the country. They arrived home to calumny, contempt and more death threats. "I got a letter from some guy who told me he was gonna kill my father and send me pieces of him in the mail," Carlos says. "That's one that stuck with me."