50 Years Later, Olympic Sprinter Tommie Smith Reflects On Activism in Sports

The man who raised his fist, and paid for it, looks back at his legacy.

Tommie Smith
American track and field athletes Tommie Smith (C) and John Carlos (R), first and third place winners in the 200 meter race, protest with the Black Power salute as they stand on the winner's podium at the Summer Olympic games, Mexico City, Mexico, October 19, 1968. (John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Tommie Smith was once one of the fastest men on Earth. During his sprinting career, he held 13 world records, 11 of which he held simultaneously. His most famous record was set on October 16, 1968, when he ran a 19.83-second 200 meter dash in order to win a gold medal at the Mexico City Olympics. His countryman and college teammate John Carlos won the bronze. And when the two Americans stood on the podium to receive the medal as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played over the stadium loudspeakers, each bowed his head and raised a black-gloved fist, Smith’s right, Carlos’s left. Their protest remains one of the most iconic images in the history of sports, reports The Atlantic, and many interpreted it to be a Black Power salute.

The protest was carefully thought out. The men wore scarves to symbolize lynching, black socks and no shoes to symbolize poverty and gloves, which Smith has said represents “freedom and power; equality.” The also had on an Olympic Project for Human Rights pin — so did the silver medalist, and Australian named Peter Norman. Immediately after they raised their fists, the stadium went quiet. Later, the men were barred from future international competitions, which essentially ended their sprinting careers. They received hate mail and death threats.

As for today’s athletes and their protests, Smith thinks that Colin Kaepernick’s actions could prove more impactful than shorter-lived protests by other African Americans over the past 50 years.

“You just keep working, it will happen,” Smith told The Atlantic. “I’m not broken to a point that I can’t move forward. Colin Kaepernick is going to be the same way.”

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