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Once United, Now Divided

At 1968 Olympics, sprinters Smith and Carlos staged a podium demonstration to highlight civil rights. Now they bicker about whose idea it was and the race itself.

July 08, 2008|David Davis | Special to The Times

United they stood, two men with black-gloved fists thrust into the night.

In solidarity, they bowed their heads as the national anthem played.

Together, in harmonious synchronicity, they defied history.

On Oct. 16, 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos finished one-three in the 200-meter Olympic finals. Smith set a world record in 19.83 seconds, powering through the thin air of Mexico City and across the finish line, arms upraised, with a mark that endured for 11 years.

But it was their demonstration on the victory podium afterward, medals dangling around their necks, that resonates today. Their purpose was to draw attention to the plight of African Americans at the height of the civil rights movement. As Smith told ABC-TV announcer Howard Cosell in Mexico City, "My raised right hand stood for the power in black America. Carlos' raised left hand stood for the unity of black America. Together they formed an arch of unity and power."

The photograph of that moment forever couples the two men. About 40 years later, however, Smith prefers to stand separate from Carlos, and vice versa. Each has written an account of the podium moment that contradicts the other's. Each has disparaged the other's accomplishments, exchanging barbs that belie the dignified eloquence of their silent salute.

Smith describes their relationship as "strained and strange." Carlos refers to his former teammate only as "Mister Smith."

Those who know them can only watch, in exasperation, as their statements seemingly contradict the salute's original meaning. Sociologist Harry Edwards, the two sprinters' mentor at San Jose State University, compares their bickering to "two old men arguing in a bar an hour before closing time."

"They're almost like brothers," says journalist Dave Zirin, author of the forthcoming "A People's History of Sports in the United States." "Small fights grow in stature over time and the feelings of aggrievement become so deep that no one can even remember what caused the wounds."

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To trace how the symbol of unity disintegrated to discord, it's important to remember the context of Smith and Carlos' protest. In 1968, the United States was verging on chaos. As the Vietnam War raged in Asia, the civil rights movement raged in America's cities. Assassins' bullets felled Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

In this post-Jackie Robinson era, black athletes were increasingly vocal about problems they faced. A groundbreaking, five-part series in Sports Illustrated outlined myriad issues, including lack of minority coaches and athletic directors, discrimination at Southern colleges and racism in the locker room.

Edwards was among those who sought to reform racial inequality in sports. He created the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a group that initially sought to organize a boycott of the 1968 Olympics. Two of his students were Smith and Carlos, who raced for Spartans coach Bud Winter and his "Speed City" program.

Born a year and a day apart, Smith and Carlos "could not have been more different," Edwards says. A child of Harlem, Carlos was "an extreme extrovert with a challenging personality," according to Edwards. The son of sharecroppers, Smith was "a much softer, private person" who grew up in rural Texas and then in Lemoore in California's Central Valley.

After Edwards' boycott concept was rejected, the decision to make a statement was left to the individual athletes. African Americans dominated track and field events in Mexico City, winning 10 gold medals and setting seven world records. But only Smith and Carlos made a public protest.

The backlash was immediate. The International Olympic Committee pressured the U.S. Olympic Committee to banish Smith and Carlos. The Associated Press accused them of a "Nazi-like salute." Brent Musburger, then a columnist with the Chicago American newspaper, called them "black-skinned storm-troopers."

"It was a polarizing moment," says University of Minnesota sociology professor Doug Hartmann, author of "Race, Culture and the Revolt of the Black Athlete: The 1968 Olympic Protests and Their Aftermath," "because it was seen as an example of black power radicalism. Mainstream America hated what they did."

Both men say that they received death threats. Smith's attempts to play pro football, both in the NFL and the CFL, were short-lived. He eventually earned his master's degree in sociology. After teaching and coaching at Oberlin College, he settled in Southern California and coached track at Santa Monica College.

Carlos blames the suicide of his first wife in part because of the post-Olympic pressures the couple faced. He also played pro football briefly; he hustled various jobs before finding work as an in-house counselor at Palm Springs High School.

"They were pioneers in getting politically involved," says Olympic teammate Bob Beamon, "and they faced an incredible backlash that hurt them for many years."

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