October 16, 1968 the entire world was fixated on Mexico City. It was the Olympics, and the event was track and field. Tommie Smith had just won a gold medal in the 200M event. He set an Olympic and World Record with a time of 19.83 seconds. On the medal stand, he proceeded to raise his right fist that had a black glove on it. This symbol by himself and John Carlos are the most iconic in Olympic history and sports. This week, it was a privilege to interview him and discuss that day and his life.
Stenson: “How did you get started with track?”
Smith: “It was a long time ago. I’m a kid from the back woods of Texas. For Christmas we didn’t have any toys so we raced each other. We put wagon wheels together and pointed them downhill. And we try to beat them to the bottom of the hill. A lot of things we did just to have fun. We didn’t have any money. We were sharecroppers. We had to do things physically. I had the gift of speed and then you matriculate on that. And pretty soon academically you matriculate on…well I can use this. And that’s how it started. It was a continuance of us kids racing each other. I’m talking about my sisters and brothers. It was 12 of us at home.”
Stenson: “So you got out of working in the fields by running track. Is that correct?”
Smith: “You are absolutely right. I didn’t want to go back to the cotton fields. My daddy told me, ‘Boy, if you don’t win you will be out here in the fields next Saturday with the rest of your brothers and sisters. And I knew then (laugh) winning was something I had to do. ”
Stenson: “Please talk about the events that led up to 1968 Olympics.”
Smith: “I didn’t think about the Olympic games. My biggest thought was getting a two point plus academic [average] to stay eligible for a full scholarship at San Jose State University. I was a double major. And practices were the most rigorous part of my life then. I had to get up early in the morning and march ROTC, do my classes mid-day, practices in the afternoon, and then go home and study. Get up the next day in repetition. When I got involved with social activities I was already a world record holder. I was one of the biggest people in the Olympic Project for Human Rights. When it got to the strength of what it was, in mid ‘67 and early ’68, I was the holder of 11 world records simultaneously in track and field. I had to participate. It was my responsibility to participate on a social level to involve young black men in the height of social degradation. At 22 years old knowing I had to get involved socially. “
Stenson: “What were your thoughts the day of the race?”
Smith: “There was a lot of tension. After the decision was made by the athletes to run and not to boycott, I had to get to the victory stand. I had to run those trials and semis to get to the victory stand and do whatever I was going to do according to how I felt about a country that did not represent me. It was a thought process. Some athletes didn’t do anything. Those of us who did something, didn’t despise or have negative thoughts about those who felt it wasn’t necessary for them to do.”
Stenson: “What are your thoughts on Colin Kaepernick and his movement?”
Smith: “Colin has been working on this more than the one time we saw it. He made it known why he did what he did. He didn’t have a program or platform. But I think there will be improvements because other young athletes are following his lead.”
Stenson: “You mentioned you were not a part of the Black Panthers but what made you choose to use the black glove? “
Smith: “It was a social issue. The black glove represents strength. It represents help is on the way. Black fist doesn’t mean militancy. Black fist doesn’t mean you hate white folks. It doesn’t mean you hate people. Only a reference to the need of power to bring change for everyone. Using it was my way of being noticed. You have to be noticed if you’re going to start something to move forward. It was not a denying of the flag. The black fist in Mexico was a small symbol of the need to move forward with the educational background of equality.”
So much more was discussed that can’t be printed. What happened to the black gloves and the black socks? Was his gold medal stripped from him? What shoes did he run in and does he still hold the World Record technically? How long was his professional football career? Go to DNASportsTalk.com under ‘Showtime’ and click on October 10, 2016 to hear the entire interview. You can also purchase his autobiography “Silent Gesture” from 2008 on Amazon. As Mr. Smith stated, “This won’t happen all the time because I don’t talk all the time. But I feel a necessity now to relay my background and my feelings openly.” To that I say simply and emphatically, Thank you!