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John Carlos
July 14, 2008
Party to one of the most incendiary moments in the history of sports, he's gone from pariah to hero over the course of four decades—but not without paying a high cost
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July 14, 2008

John Carlos

Party to one of the most incendiary moments in the history of sports, he's gone from pariah to hero over the course of four decades—but not without paying a high cost

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THEY SEND the hard cases to John Carlos. Take Jos�, here. According to a form filled out by a librarian at Palm Springs ( Calif.) High, Jos� is guilty of "defiance—refusing to follow library rules regarding loudness and horseplay." � And so Jos� has been remanded to Room 906, where he takes a seat under the baleful gaze of Carlos, who serves as an "in-school suspension supervisor" and who, come to think of it, knows a little something about defiance.

Forty years after he and Tommie Smith thrust black-gloved fists into the night sky at the Mexico City Olympics, Carlos, 63, has found stability—he is in his 24th year at the school—love and respect. The sprinters who were booted from those Games, reviled as militants and traitors (a young Chicago American columnist, Brent Musburger, described them as "black-skinned storm troopers"), stand revealed, in the fullness of time, as American heroes. In 2005 they were invited to San Jose State, where they had run as collegians, for the unveiling of a 20-foot-high sculpture, by an artist named Rigo 23, capturing their silent protest. If the university had not exactly welcomed them back with open arms in '68, it has sought to make amends. The spring before the unveiling, San Jose State presented them with honorary doctorates.

It is actually somewhat refreshing to see that the doctorate and the statue and the inductions to various halls of fame have not smoothed all the burrs from Carlos's personality—the same abrasive edge that surfaced before big meets, when he would announce his presence by saying, "Ain't nothin' new, but the rent's due, and we are here to collect." He was also known to growl to his opponents, while backing into the blocks, "I'll save you n——s a piece of the tape."

When a reporter calls from across town, informing Carlos that he's running late, the former Olympian does not bother to mask his irritation.

"I'll be there in 15," vows the scribe.

"Well, I hope so," comes the reply.

When his visitor arrives, however, Carlos is cordial and generous with his time. The figure that emerges, as he leans back to reflect on his younger self, is independent, strong-headed, bordering on obstinate.

Carlos grew up in Harlem, one of five children of a cobbler, Earl, and a nurse's aide, Vioris. His parents never saw John run. "They were always working," Carlos says. "They did their jobs."

After starring at Machine and Metal Trades High on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, he accepted a track scholarship to East Texas State in Commerce—a decision he soon came to regret. "About two minutes after I got there," he recalls, "I noticed that my name changed from John Carlos to Boy." One afternoon the following spring, on the eve of the Lone Star Conference championships, a coach gave Carlos what was, in his view, a ridiculously taxing workout. In protest Carlos walked the backstretch of one of his sprints, prompting the coach to pick up a hammer and walk menacingly toward him. Says Carlos, "I remember telling him, 'That hammer better be licorice because I'm gonna make you eat it.'"

Carlos transferred to San Jose State the following year, 1967. There, legendary track coach Bud Winter presided over the team known as Speed City. Its breathtaking collection of athletes included not just Smith (who would eventually hold 11 world records), but Lee Evans and Ronnie Ray Smith, both of whom would also win gold in Mexico City. If San Jose State had been a country at those Games, it would have tied for 12th in the gold medal standings, ahead of Italy, Kenya, Cuba and Yugoslavia.

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