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BILL PLASCHKE

Raising the Stakes

Tommie Smith, kicked out of the 1968 Olympics for his gesture, puts quite a price on his gold medal.

April 29, 2001|BILL PLASCHKE

You might think he would be somewhere else. You might think he would be somebody else.

Thirty-three years after his simple raised fist nudged a complex society, you might think he would be famous, like Jesse Jackson, or wealthy, like Carl Lewis, or renowned, like Harry Edwards.

Thirty-three years after risking his career and his reputation with that infamous black-gloved gesture on the Olympic medal stand in Mexico City, you might think he would be rich with the rewards of that sacrifice.

You might think Tommie Smith would be anywhere but here, in his modest Baldwin Hills home, on a gated street in a deteriorating neighborhood, holding his gold medal in its original blue box, now cracked and tarnished.

Holding it because he's selling it.

Selling it because he needs the money to buy something you might think would be free, the trust of a community he wants to serve.

Smith has put his 200-meter Olympic gold medal and other personal items up for auction, in hopes of raising enough money to start a foundation for disadvantaged youths.

"I want to use what I have physically accomplished to help me do more," he said last week in a rare interview, staring down at the medal after pulling it from a small cluttered case in his family room.

The auction is a simple and, by all accounts, sincere gesture.

Yet, as with his last major gesture in 1968, some people think Tommie Smith is nuts.

The auction actually began in September. A college student recently discovered it on Smith's obscure Web site and broke the news.

The items were still for sale because, in seven months, Smith had not received one offer.

The starting bid for the gold medal is $500,000.

Memorabilia experts say most gold medals--which are only gold-plated--rarely sell for more than $6,000.

"It ain't gonna happen, the man is delusional," said Jim Weaver, longtime owner of "The Mad Sports Fan" in Santa Barbara.

The starting bid for the warmups Smith wore that day is $50,000. The starting bid for the actual running shorts and shirt are $30,000.

"Those prices are a joke," Weaver said. "The most sought-after autographs in the world can be had for cheaper than that."

Smith has heard worse. He wonders if this lack of attention isn't about the price of a medal, but the price of a gesture.

"It's my name," he said. "It's an infamous name."

Even at 56, Smith has the sleek body of a young runner. His eyes still have that flicker. His voice still resonates.

"People still don't get it," Smith said. "They don't agree with how it was done. I can see it. I can feel it."

*

Tommie Smith remembers precisely when he saw it and felt it first.

As he held the right gloved fist in the air during the national anthem, protesting racial inequities that October day in 1968, he noticed fans giving him the finger.

"I was much more frightened on that stand than I had ever been on a starting block," he said. "But I felt I had no choice. . . . I had to show the world what our life was like off that stand."

Here's what one life was like:

Shortly before leaving his college home in San Jose for the Olympics, Smith had landed a job at a car dealership that advertised his name on the marquee, inviting people to meet the future Olympic star.

But the bosses wouldn't allow him to sell the cars. It was his job to wash them.

When a customer wanted to meet him, he slipped out of his coveralls, dried his hands, put on a tie, and came up front.

He was fired for his frank statements about racial equality before the Games.

As he took the medal stand that day, he thought about that job, and about all the other times this son of a poor farmhand was made to feel small or used.

"Then I got up there, and I prayed," he recalled. "I prayed the whole time, asking why . . . why did I have to do this?"

Although it would be considered unpatriotic even in these days of fans shouting during the national anthem, history shows that the gesture worked.

Coming near the end of one of the more turbulent years in this country's evolution, it evoked a worldwide awakening to our racial discrimination.

It gave that evil a symbol. It gave the civil rights movement a push. It reminded a celebrating nation that not everyone had been invited to the party.

It was not violent. It was not threatening. Nobody was shot. Nothing was burned.

If someone stepped on the stand with no shoes and one glove and stuck an arm into the air today, that athlete would be criticized for about 10 minutes, then forgotten.

Hey, it wasn't as if Smith dishonored the anthem by wrapping the flag around his bare chest and mugging and laughing, right?

The world didn't see it that way in 1968.

Writing for a Chicago newspaper, Brent Musburger referred to Smith and fellow protester John Carlos as "black-skinned storm troopers." Turns out, that was one of the nicest things people said.

They were thrown off the U.S. team and expelled from Mexico City.

Smith never ran for this country again.

"I went from the Olympics . . . to doing exhibitions on dirt tracks," he said.

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