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I asked my next guest, Tommie Smith, who is arguably one of the bravest athletes of the 20th century, if he listened to music before competitions. His answer was Sam Cooke. That was poignant.
Sure, sprinter Tommie Smith was a man of his era. But being born black in 1944 America with unique talents, you quickly learned that in theory, you were brought here for your labor. There were certain athletes and entertainers who decided that was not fair: If you accept my talent, you have to accept all that comes with my skin color. Though Sam Cooke was killed in 1964, both he and Tommie were of that ilk, unapologetically pushing boundaries to achieve equality, sometimes to their own detriment.
Tommie, of course, became famous for his silent protest: defiantly raising his fist at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City after he won the gold medal in the 200 meter. So as we are about to witness another Olympics, this time in Tokyo, I wanted to use “Renaissance Man” to celebrate him and talk about his history-making moment.
I idolized him growing up, and Tommie inspired me to understand that sports are bigger than the score of the game. There’s that, and then there’s the game of life. He mastered both. So I wanted to start with his humble beginnings.
While on the winners podium, fist raised, with fellow American John Carlos and Australian Peter Norman, he flexed part of his wrist. He called it his “class muscle.” So where did that iconic physical attribute come from?
“From the country backwoods of Texas,” he told me. “I picked cotton, milked cows, fed hogs. I worked feverishly to endure those days, and by doing those hand [movements] just to survive, I created muscles in my arms … And creating these muscles, that’s where they came from. Hard work with my hands and with the endurance that I knew I had to have to be somebody bigger than we were back in the day.”
He said labor and hardship truly helped forge strength in him, which would later manifest itself in many ways, including on the track and the world stage.
“I had 11 brothers and sisters and we all worked. We worked to maintain a daily routine. And these things that I live through and talk about now is the same as any life of a youngster, no matter where it is. It could be the Heights of New York or it could be the San Joaquin Valley in California. Young folks have to attain that stress factor. I want to stress this. You got to get through it. Some fall on the way. But some are blessed to keep moving, and we owe … those who helped us along the way.”
Sometimes I think a step of his protest — which set off a firestorm — goes unnoticed. His entire powerful gesture was predicated on him winning and being the best in the world. If Tommie Smith hadn’t had the speed, the talent and the discipline, he might not have been there to raise his fist. He shattered the 20-second barrier for the 200 meter and won gold. So I wanted to know how he honed his athletic gifts and love of running.
In short, his entire athletic foundation is like a hybrid of Mr. Miyagi’s paint-the-fence, sand-the-floor school of training and the montage in “Rocky IV” when he works out on whatever’s hanging around that snowy Russian farm. There was nothing sophisticated about Tommie’s process or his equipment. Nature was his gym.
“[My] brothers and sisters, and we used to chase each other everywhere we went. We would never walk. We had no car, so we had to run. We had to get someplace fast. We ran. And that kind of carried over to the next step, [then] the next step, until we got to where the steps mounted into a long road called life.”
Crazily enough, he said he wasn’t even the best in his family.
“My sister would be better than I. She outran me even when I was in eighth grade. But, you know, back in those days, daddies said mommies didn’t want their daughters to be running because it might show a part of the body that they didn’t want to be seen from the olden days. But, yeah, we had to. I went to college on a basketball scholarship. I just happened to run track as well.”
He went to San Jose State University and said running suited him better than the team sport of hoops because, he admitted through a chuckle, “I am not the type of guy to share.”
Maybe individual sports were more his speed, but he sure did share his gifts with the world. It was in California where this Texas boy began to have a political awakening and work toward equality in the community.
At that time especially, entangling sports and social issues came with great risk. There was a price to pay, but change was swirling in the air. In 1967, just after Muhammed Ali had refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War, athletes like Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who then was still Lew Alcindor, gathered in Cleveland to support the GOAT. It became known as the Ali Summit.
That same year, a group of people including academics and athletes like Tommie Smith and John Carlos formed the Olympic Project for Human Rights. As Tommie notes: “Not black rights, not any right of any color. Human rights.”
When his moment of gold medal glory arrived, Smith said, “I had not very much time to say anything, and that’s why I chose to say nothing.” As the national anthem played, he and his teammate raised their fists. The moment was immortalized in a famous photograph, but their story was just beginning.
The same could be said for Peter Norman, the white Australian runner who took second place and was an ally and collaborator. He was wearing the badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, and the three knew each other before they hit the podium.
“Peter was basically the same person, [with the same] human-rights-issue-type idealism. Peter got in trouble … It was the button that he wore identifying him with Tommie Smith and John Carlos. People hated him because they didn’t know very much about the Olympic Project for Human Rights. So he was an advocate of human initiative, human rights. But people, especially his people, saw him as jumping on board with Tommie Smith and John. But he was already there. The victory stand just pointed out the fact that he was a great human adviser,” said Tommie, who noted that Norman was penalized for his quiet statement.
“He could have and should have ran in the ’72 games for Australia, but because of his move in 1968, [they] eliminated him.”
When he passed away in 2006, Tommie and Carlos flew to Australia to eulogize him.
“Because we felt that that type of social cognizance, that togetherness with him and his family. Yeah, he was a great man and had a great family.”
The three shared an indelible bond. They also shared painful repercussions. And a lot of doors were shut on both Tommie and Carlos when they returned home.
In fact, before the Olympics, Tommie wasn’t making the kind of money that he was worth. And he knew it. He was breaking records left and right, and he wasn’t asking for a sizable endorsement. He was a young married father who wanted to continue to run and not have to return to picking cotton. He is a religious man, and he put his faith in a higher power. One day, Puma called.
“The Puma people said, ‘Come with me. You won’t fail.’” They stuck with him, and Tommie’s been an integral part of the company and its history, which also includes a relationship with fellow iconoclast Clyde Frazier that started in the early ’70s.
Tommie proudly wears his Puma gold necklace, which they only give to legends. I’ve been with them for five years, and I am still trying to get my necklace, so he said he’d put in a good word for me.
As history has taken twists and turns, he was able to reclaim his legacy. People now see him as a hero. In November, his journey was made into a documentary, “With Drawn Arms,” which was produced by John Legend and actor Jesse Williams. Right now, it’s on iTunes and more than worth your time.
His biggest takeaway from the process of making that film: “The feeling of ‘I am somebody’ … You are as powerful as you think,” said Tommie, who, despite his treatment by some, never became bitter. He is an inspiration to any generation of American, white, black, brown, yellow, pink or purple. He’s a universal icon.
“And I am still here to continue to teach through film instead of silence. I’ve done silence. I’m not silent anymore.”
But we’ve been hearing you loud and clear since 1968, Mr. Tommie Smith.
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.
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