It was the Mexico City Olympics of 1968, the summer when inner-city riots and student protests rocked the US, a country reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King and the escalation of war in Vietnam.
African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos took to the podium after winning gold and bronze in the 200m. As the opening bars of The Star-Spangled Banner began, both men raised a gloved fist in the air and bowed their heads, silencing the stadium and stunning television viewers around the world.
Smith, the man on the top step, can still recall every second of the experience. “Even now, when I hear the National Anthem, I get a sensation about my mind and my body,” he says. “It’s a song portraying freedom and liberties. Of course, what we were standing up and saying with our gesture was that not everyone in America had the same freedom.”
I caught up with Smith as Salute, a stirring documentary film, was released to coincide with the London Games. It is a film he says he will “probably never get tired of watching” as it writes the role of his friend Peter Norman back into the story. Norman is the silver medal-winning Australian runner who stood alongside the Americans on the podium that day in 1968.
Unknown to the Americans at the time, he was a keen supporter of the US civil rights struggle. Realizing Smith and Carlos were planning to stage a symbolic protest, Norman wanted to add his support. He grabbed an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge and pinned it to his tracksuit, showing his backing for a civil rights body loathed by the International Olympic Committee. “Wearing that badge cast him under a global spotlight. Just standing there, with two black athletes, it was difficult for him, coming where he came from,” says Smith. “It put him in a category as a troublemaker.
“But this was a man whose parents as Salvation Army officers worked to help the less fortunate. This was a man who as a child understood the need to treat everybody equally.”
Salute movingly documents the longstanding friendship of the three men, bound together as they dealt with ongoing attacks for besmirching the precious Games with the pesky business of politics.
In Australia, the newspapers turned on Norman, a committed Christian, for supporting “negro militants.” He was not selected for the 1972 Olympics despite remaining the country’s top runner. Decades later, he was not even invited to participate in the Sydney Olympics celebrations in 2000.
Back in the US, both Smith and Carlos struggled to find work, having been sent home and banned for life by then-IOC president Avery Brundage. Carlos’ wife committed suicide, having struggled to cope with abuse and death threats. Smith’s parents suffered too. He blames his mother’s ill-health and early death on the prolonged backlash.
“Yes, the family received a lot of negativity,” Smith says. “Manure and dead rats in the mail. People actually drove by and dropped them in the mailbox.”
What caused such antipathy? What does Smith believe his clenched fist represented? “Power,” he says. “Strength and power. It was a very positive gesture but it was taken as negative. The fist in the air and the bow of the head in prayer was a cry for freedom and strength in solidarity. Maybe if we’d put our hands on our hearts as we bowed it might have been seen as something more positive but sometimes perception needs to be challenged and changed.
“You see, with that gesture we showed the world that America needed improvement,” he says. “I don’t believe that because we’re one of the greatest countries on the face of this Earth that we’re perfect.”
Smith forged a career as coach and teacher. He has been belatedly recognized for his courage, with dozens of awards and hall of fame entries. His athletics foundation helps young black children get involved in the sport.
What does he say now when complimented for a stand that once received such condemnation? “All I can say is, ‘Thank you’. Sometimes I’d like to say to people, ‘Now, what are you doing for change?’ But I accept it graciously. Sometimes I ask the kids at our foundation, the ones who are looking at the picture, ‘Where is he now?’ And they say, ‘Oh, he’s dead.’
“I have to explain, ‘I am him’.” He laughs. “So I have to explain that I’m still around and the work carries on. The world flows, it doesn’t stand still. There is still a lot to do. So we must continue.”