"Speed City" -- A lesson in righteous protest
Forged in the fire
San Jose State star sprinters Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (not pictured) honed their craft for years and refined their skills under the tutelage of coach Bud Winters, who coined the nickname "Speed City" for the Spartan track program.
Winning the spot
Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) earned their spot on the 1968 U.S. Olympic team by virtue of the fact they represented two of the three men who had ran 200 meters in less than 20 seconds flat.
Contoversy surrounds the games
Smith and Carlos found themselves in the midst of a burning racial climate. The two were competing for a nation that was rife with turmoil as the Civil Rights movement reached a fever pitch. The Olympics -- with two prominent Black athletes featured as stars -- provided a platform for protest and demonstration, and rumblings of a boycott stewed.
Competition and triumph
Smith and Carlos chose to compete for their country, and did so brilliantly. The two decided to utilize their platform to effect change and forward the difficult discussion of racial politics in America. Smith won the 200 meter race with a world-record time of 19.83 seconds, pictured raising his arms in triumph as he crosses the finish line. Carlos (259) finished third, receiving the Bronze Medal.
An iconic display of protest
Smith and Carlos took the podium, medals draped around their necks, and raised a gloved fist skyward as they fixed their gaze downward, in silent but unfathomably powerful and transcendent protest. It should be noted that Australian Silver Medalist, Peter Norman, while not raising his fist, stood in solidarity with the protest. The two sprinters knew the backlash that would certainly follow this act of calculated resistance, but equally knew its necessity, and followed through in the true American spirit of righteousness.
Shamed and ostracized
Following the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos were vilified as boisterous, cocky youngsters who had upstaged the Olympic Games selfishly. Pictured here, the president of the United States Olympic Committee explains to reporters that the International Olympic Games threatened to remove the U.S. team from the games if disciplinary action was not taken against the sprinters. Smith and Carlos were subsequently expelled from the team.
Shamed and ostracised
The vitriol directed at Smith and Carlos was so heated it disallowed them from furthering their message following the games. The avalanche of negativity caused them to almost disappear after being suspended, and Carlos was quoted in this image as saying "I have no comment and I mean it." Even respected American sportswriter Brent Musburger (a young, hungry writer at the time) called the sprinters "juvenile", "ignoble," "unimaginative," and "a pair of black-skinned stormtroopers."
Almost forty years after the Mexico City games, the two "Speed City" sprinters were honored by their Alma Mater. On Monday, Oct. 17, 2005, a statue was erected at San Jose State commemorating the historic games and the polarizing protest that followed. The statue stands not only as a reminder of the athletic prowess and achievements of the runners, but of the strength of spirit necessary to stand for their cause, and to weather the storm of reaction and vilification that ensues when a nation is not yet ready to face the problems of its people.
Honored at the ESPYs
On Wednesday, July 16, 2008, Smith and Carlos were awarded the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the ESPYs. Forty years following the games, the Spartan sprinters received nationwide recognition for their courage in utilizing their platform to effect change, knowing what would ensue. This emotional presentation gave the United States at large a more informed picture of their decision and the following backlash.
On the right side of history
Now, at the 45th anniversary of the games, history reflects an image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos that contemporaries did not. While today we accept and exalt the runners as righteous activists, it must be stated that their society did nothing of the sort. Smith and Carlos have finally been accepted for what they are -- true American heroes who gave their names to further a nation that had cast them out. History has finally caught up to the elusive "Speed City" sprinters.