Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Vilified to Glorified: Olympic Redux

October 17, 2005
Sports of The Times

PEOPLE often ask about my sports heroes - specifically, whether I have any. The standing answer is that I know too much about too many athletes to have heroes. There were, however, two icons who made an indelible mark on my life at an early age: John Carlos and Tommie Smith. They are the closest I've come to having sports heroes.

In 1968, Smith and Carlos made one of the most courageous and enduring acts of sports demonstration in my lifetime, possibly in modern athletic history, when they raised black-gloved fists and bowed their heads on the victory stand at the Mexico City Olympic Games. The act was a profound gesture against oppression.

Today at San Jose State University, their message will come full circle, 37 years later, with a daylong celebration that will end with the unveiling of a 24-foot bronze statue commemorating their Mexico City demonstration.

Smith is simultaneously baffled and awed.

"When I first heard the suggestion, I really couldn't see a statue," he said during a phone interview last week. "I would have liked to have seen an academic scholarship fund. My goal was never to be immortal."

Having said that, Smith conceded that he was honored. "I'll probably be marveling at it like everyone else, looking up and thinking, 'Is that me?' " he said.

In October 1968, Smith and Carlos were two of the world's greatest sprinters. In Mexico City, they punctuated the United States' domination of the Olympics: Smith won the gold medal in the 200 meters and Carlos won the bronze. Peter Norman of Australia won the silver.

I don't remember whether the Games were live on television or shown on a tape delay. But I remember being stunned as I watched Smith and Carlos climb the podium and, as the national anthem played, raise clenched fists and bow their heads. Smith raised his right fist as a symbol of black power, and Carlos raised his left to represent unity in black America. Norman wore a badge in support of an organization that Smith had co-founded, the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

In my mind, the demonstration became the perfect symbol of protest, and illuminated the power of a silent but well-timed demonstration.

Their protest is also why I don't give much credence to athletes who speak out after they leave their respective sports and lob rhetorical grenades from the safety of retirement. Smith, who was 24 in 1968, and Carlos, who was 23, were at the pinnacle of their sport and were celebrating a once-in-a-lifetime highlight. After their protest, they were suspended from the national team and barred from the Olympic village.

Thirty-seven years later, their demonstration is being memorialized at their alma mater as part of a movement to encourage and recognize student activism.

"I don't feel vindicated," Smith said. "To be vindicated means that I did something wrong; I didn't do anything wrong. I just carried out a responsibility. We felt a need to represent a lot of people who did more than we did but had no platform, people who suffered long before I got to the victory stand."

In 1968, the Smith-Carlos protest was cast - and later marginalized - as a demonstration strictly for black power. In fact, what drove them to demonstrate was a broader concern for human rights and human freedom, with an emphasis on the plight of African-Americans.

"Because we were two young black athletes, they wanted to tie us to the Panthers, the Patty Hearst kidnapping - it got completely blown out of proportion," Smith said. "It wasn't that. It was about athletes who felt the need for change."

The problem in 1968 was that we were so consumed with our own narrow battles and movements that we couldn't always see the global connections.

Even as Smith and Carlos made their protest, Vera Caslavska, a Czechoslovakian gymnast, used the Olympics to bring attention to the Soviet invasion of her country. Caslavska had won three gold medals and one silver medal at the 1964 Tokyo Games. In Mexico City, she successfully defended her all-around and vault titles and added two more gold medals and two silvers. On the victory stand, during the awarding of two gold medals, she dropped her head in silent protest during the Russian national anthem.

Smith said he didn't learn about Caslavska's protest until months later, though he said he probably wouldn't have joined forces if he had known at the time. "I had my hands full doing what I was doing with the Olympic Project," he said. "But what we did was global; I just wanted to concentrate on home."

Fittingly, Smith and Carlos will be honored today at home - their college, their state, their country. "I don't know how I'm going to react," Smith said. "I don't know if I'll cry or if I'll grab an ax and try to cut it down."

We have a World Series to play, a Bowl Championship Series champion to determine and a Super Bowl to play. But today's celebration in San Jose is my sports event of the year.


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