Activism and Performance Defined 1968 Olympic Track Team

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report

If the images of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-glove fists in protest at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City have lasted the test of time as a symbol of defiance against racism and all forms of oppression, the outstanding performances of the entire U.S. men’s Track and Field team has also transcended the test of time.

In the last 40 years, no other U.S. track team or squad from any other country has come close to equaling the accomplishments of the 1968 U.S. men’s track team at the Mexico City Olympics.

Ironically, what made Smith and Carlos’ protest possible and for that matter powerful was their dominance on the track. Not only did Smith win the gold medal in the 200-meter dash, he set a world-record in the process. Carlos finished third.

Among the many great athletes on that team was the legendary San Jose State “Speed City” squad of Smith, Carlos, 400-meter gold medalist Lee Evans and Ronnie Ray Smith accounted for four gold medals alone.

“Think about San Jose State alone, that would have beaten a lot of nations in terms of the medal count,” Carlos said. “We had so many athletes that came from across the United States.”

For the record, the 1968 U.S. men’s Olympic track and field team won 22 medals. They won 12 gold medals and set eight world records in the process. The U.S. team dominated the sprint events winning the 100 (Jimmy Hines), 200, and 400 meter dashes. They won both relays and took gold in the 110-meter hurdles (Willie Davenport). In the field events, the U.S. won golds in the long jump, high jump (Dick Fosbury), pole vault (Bob Seagren), the decathlon (Bill Toomey), shot put (Randy Matson) and discus (Al Oerter).

Track and field historian Derek Toliver said the U.S. team was the best of the nation’s great track and field powers from schools like San Jose State and Villanova, the historically Black colleges and universities and the U.S. military.

“It’s pretty special when you think about the depth and breadth not only from the African-American athlete male and female, you look at all the other guys that were there that got towed along,” Toliver said. “The level of confidence of that team because everybody there truly felt at any given time could be gold medalists and they were all correct. At one time or other if they hadn’t set a world record, whoever won a gold medal they had beaten them or come close to beating them. “

The U.S. also won medals in the distance events with Jim Ryun’s silver medal. Ryun was beaten in the final 100 meters by Kenya’s Kip Keino. The U.S. team also picked up bronze medals from George Young in the 3,000-meter steeple chase and Larry Young in the 50 kilometer walk.

Some experts point to the 1984 U.S. Olympic track team as being comparable to the 1968 team. The athletes who competed in Mexico City that were interviewed for this story said there is no comparison because they were simply better than the 1984 team that competed in the midst of the Soviet-bloc boycott.

“Everybody that was on that line in ’68 was capable of being a world-record holder,” Carlos said. “You can’t say that about the 1984 team. I’m not taking anything way from what Carl Lewis did because what he did was great, but those games can’t compete with the ’68 games.”

On the track, Smith held the world record in both the 200 and 400 meter dash. Even though he had beaten Evans in an event in the previous, Smith said he didn’t have to run the 400 meter dash because Evans was just as good. In fact, the U.S. team won all three medals in the 400.

In a highly-charged racial and political atmosphere in which African-American athletes were under fire and in some cases threatened for considering a boycott of the games, their outstanding performances made it possible for them to use Olympics as a platform to protest racism in America.

“It was for all Black people in America for the struggle that Black people were going through in America,” said Mel Pender, who was apart of the U.S.’s gold medal winning 4×100-meter relay team. “Those medals were won for them. That was my feeling and that was everybody else’s feeling. We were going to show our people just how great we were.”

Prior to the games, there was debate about how the protest would take shape among athletes like Smith, Carlos, long jumper Ralph Boston and sprinters like Pender, all of whom were apart of the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

There were some who wanted to stage a boycott while others wanted to make a statement at the games themselves. According to Harry Edwards, one of the key organizers of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, said there wasn’t going to be a uniform boycott because the consequences would have been dire, especially for the athletes from the military and from historically Black colleges.

“There was not going to be any uniformed or unified boycott,” Edwards said. “The black schools made it very clear that not only were there athletes not going to boycott, but if they were associated with the Olympic Project for Human Rights, they were not only off the team, they were out of school.

“The point was to break this headlock that American society had on Black people in sport and I think they did a hell of a job.”

Oddly enough, Pender, who was a 31-year-old captain in the U.S. Army at the time, said he was called into the office and warned by his commanding colonel not participate in any type of demonstration. He said he was called in because he was one of the spokesman for Olympic Project for Human Rights.

“I told Col. Miller, I understand but I’m Black and these are my brothers and sisters out there fighting for some of the same things I’m fighting for even in the military because there was racism in the military,” said Pender, who was denied the opportunity to go to flight school and ordered to go to Vietnam.

Boston said it was ultimately important for the Black athletes to not only go to Mexico City, but to win and use their victories as a platform to make their statement.

“If (Smith) and Carlos had finished dead last, there could not have been a statement because he couldn’t have been on the victory stand,” said Boston, who won the bronze medal in the long jump. “It was very important to win. It was important to go and compete. It was more important to earn a place, so you can have that soap box from which you can launch yourself.”

When it was decided that each athlete would come up with his own form of protest or expression, Boston said it brought about a sense of team unity and a determination that they were going to put out their best performances.

“Because we could not agree on a common act, I think what they did was to say agree to disagree and go forth and serve,” Boston said. “That allowed you to respect any other athlete who said this is what I want to do. We were together there’s no question about it.”

On the night that Smith and Carlos did their black-gloved protest on the victory stand, Boston and Pender said the team was shocked and stunned by the protest.

“John Carlos and Tommie Smith had no idea that it would become as big as it got,” Pender said.

Meanwhile, Smith said he afraid for his life as he and Carlos raised their Black-gloved fists in the air, but he and Carlos were determined to make their statement against racism and injustice.

“That was the longest national anthem on any planet, my prayer was short,” Smith said. “Of course, I was afraid, I was terrified, but I was a on a mission from a non-secular situation which I claim even today. I believed I was saved because of my belief for others, not necessarily myself, because I am vessel to be used for the betterment of human kind.”

Other forms of protest, though not as spectacular as Smith and Carlos, included some athletes going to the medal stand without their shoes. Some wore black socks and Black arm-bands. Evans, Larry James and Ron Freeman, the three medal winners in the 400-meter dash wore black berets similar to those worn by the Black Panthers and removed them during the playing of the national anthem.

Pender said Smith and Carlos protests obscured the contributions of the other athletes on the team.

“It wasn’t only Smith and Carlos, it was everybody that protested,” Pender said. “They might have put their fists, but everybody did their own thing to show the world that we’re Black and we wanted to be treated the same as everybody. Guys wore black shoes, blacks socks, black ribbons. Everybody wore something.”

One of the most compelling records of the games was Bob Beamon’s record breaking leap in the long jump. His world record leap of 29 feet, 2 ½ inches set the Olympic track and field event on its ear and stood until 1991.

“I thought I was in shape enough to win until I saw 29 feet,” Boston recalled. “When he asked me to convert the distance (from meters to feet), I said that’s more than 29 feet. He said, ‘no it can’t be.’ I said it’s more than 29 feet.”

Boston said Beamon had outstanding leaping ability and could jump with the best of them.

“Beamon was an excitable character with a whole bunch of talent,” Boston said. “He could put his elbow on top of a basketball goal. That’s how high could leap. I heard a story that he could take a block of wood on top of the backboard. I know he blocked one of Dr. J’s (Julius Erving) shots.”

Smith said what made the difference in Beamon’s record breaking leap was his speed. He said Beamon was 9.3 100-meter runner had the ability to be an outstanding sprinter if he had chosen to go that route.

“In about five seconds into his run, I said ‘oh my god, the man was running like I had never seen him run before,” Smith said. “He didn’t even think about coming down. If you look at that jump, he landed on his feet and jumped out of the pit. His heel hit and his butt was over his heel and never touched the sand and had another eight inches.”

If you talk to the athletes about the legacy of the team both on and off the track, they all have different answers about what their 1968 Olympic experience meant. Carlos said not much has changed for African-Americans in the 40 years he and Smith raised their fists in Mexico City.

“When I come home, my eyes are wide open to see that things have not progressed,” Carlos said. “We’re still living the same way, people are still searching for jobs, people are still trying to get an education and people are still live their lives with drugs being in the midst of it all.”

Smith said the outstanding performances of the athletes while standing up for the dignity of African-Americans and the oppressed everywhere around the world made that 1968 track team even more special.

“It polarized us to not melt under pressure,” Smith said. “During that time there was a thought process to believe that if you don’t stand for something, you just might fall for anything. We were that tough. I’m just proud to say that I was a member of that team.”

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