Olympian Tommie Smith on why he gave the black power salute: "It was a cry for freedom"
On the rare occasion politics and sport cross paths, it is usually accidental, a matter of feverish national rivalries imposed on cool-headed athletes and performers. The 20th century did, however, provide one electrifying moment of calculated political defiance in sport. Three men took a stand on the biggest stage possible and found their lives changed forever.
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 assasination 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 catch up with Smith as Salute, a stirring documentary film, is 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. Realising 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. And when, in the chaotic last moments before they walked out to receive their medals, Carlos found he’d forgotten his gloves, it was Norman who suggested Carlos and Smith wear one black glove each.
“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.
He remains a hero to many American athletes nonetheless. After he died of a heart attack in 2006, Smith and Carlos carried his coffin at the funeral.
Back in the US after the 1968 Games, both Smith and Carlos struggled to find work, having been sent home and banned for life by the odious then IOC president Avery Brundage. Carlos’ wife committed suicide, having struggled to cope with the barrage of 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, a lot of verbiage,” he says. “Manure and dead rats in the mail. People actually drove by and dropped them in the mailbox. My brothers and sisters were told at school not to be like their brother, Tommie.
"When my family went into town other people would say, ‘Tommie was a good kid, he always smiled, what happened to him?’ As if we had no capacity to think. We weren’t supposed to be free enough to think.”
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 has found life easier in more recent decades, forging a career as coach and teacher and has benn belatedly recognised for his courage, with dozens of awards and hall of fame entries. His athletics foundation helps young black children get involved in the sport.
This year’s Games offer progress in the struggle for a different kind of equality. The IOC’s fruiful negotiations with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei mean female athletes are now arriving to represent the Gulf states: London 2012 will be the first time women from every nation will compete. Could a Saudi women on the pod-ium provide another teutonic plate-shifting moment?
Yet Salute remains a reminder of the conservative, domineering side of the Olympics, and Smith’s audacious stance challenges today’s well-paid sportsmen and women to ask what they might dare do for the right cause.
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.” l
Salute is out now on DVD. For more info about cinema screenings see www.salutethemovie.com