Tommie Smith

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Tommie Smith
John Carlos, Tommie Smith 1968.jpg
John Carlos and Tommie Smith (center) at the 200 m award ceremony of the 1968 Olympics, wearing black gloves, black socks and no shoes
Personal information
Born (1944-06-06) June 6, 1944 (age 72)
Clarksville, Texas, United States
Height 6 ft 3 in (1.91 m)
Weight 185 lb (84 kg)
Sport Sprint running
Club Santa Clara Valley Youth Village
Achievements and titles
Personal best(s) 100 y – 9.3 (1967)
100 – 10.1 (1966)
200 – 19.83 (1968)
220y – 19.5s (1966)
400 – 44.5 (1967)[1]
Tommie Smith
No. 24
Position: Wide receiver
Personal information
Height: 6 ft 3 in (1.91 m)
Weight: 190 lb (86 kg)
Career information
High school: Lemoore (CA)
College: San Jose State
NFL Draft: 1967 / Round: 9 / Pick: 226
Career history
Career NFL statistics
Player stats at
Player stats at PFR

Tommie C. Smith (born June 6, 1944)[2] is an American former track & field athlete and wide receiver in the American Football League. At the 1968 Summer Olympics, Smith, aged 24, won the 200-meter sprint finals and gold medal in 19.83 seconds – the first time the 20-second barrier was broken legally. His Black Power salute with John Carlos atop the medal podium to protest the harsh and sometimes deadly discriminatory against African-Americans because of their skin color in the United States caused controversy as it was seen as politicizing the Olympic Games. It remains a symbolic moment in the history of the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

Early life and career[edit]

Tommie Smith was born on June 6, 1944 in Clarksville, Texas, the seventh of 12 children born to Richard and Dora Smith. He suffered from pneumonia as a child, but still grew to be an athletic youth. While attending Lemoore High School in Lemoore, California, Smith showed great potential, setting most of the school's track records, many of which remain. He won the 440-yard dash in the 1963 CIF California State Meet.[3] He was voted Lemoore's "Most Valuable Athlete" in basketball, football, and track and field,[4] and was also voted vice president of his senior class.[5] His achievements earned him a scholarship to San Jose State University.[6]

On May 7, 1966 while he was at San Jose State, Smith set a world best of 19.5 seconds in the 200 m straight, which he ran on a cinder track.[7] That record for 200 m was finally beaten by Tyson Gay on May 16, 2010, just over 44 years later,[8] though Smith still holds the record for the slightly longer 220-yard event. Since the IAAF has abandoned ratifying records for the event, Smith will retain the official record for the straightaway 200 m/220 yards in perpetuity.[9]

A few weeks later, on June 11, 1966, Smith set the record for 200 meters and 220 yards around a turn at 20.0, the first man to do that in 20 seconds. Six days later he won the NCAA Men's Outdoor Track and Field Championship. Smith also won the national collegiate 220-yard (201.17 m) title in 1967 before adding the AAU furlong (201.17m) crown as well. He traveled to Japan for the 1967 Summer Universiade and won the 200 m gold medal. He repeated as AAU 200-meter champion in 1968 and made the Olympic team.

1968 Summer Olympics[edit]

Leading up to the Olympics, at the U.S. Olympic Trials at Echo Summit, California, San Jose State teammate John Carlos beat Smith and his world record, running 19.92A. Carlos' record was disallowed because of the brush spike shoes he was wearing.[citation needed]

At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico, Smith nursed an injured hamstring into the 200 m final. In the race, teammate John Carlos powered out to the lead through the turn, while Smith got a slow start. Coming off the turn, Smith charged past Carlos and sped to victory. Knowing he had passed his training partner and closest foe, his victory was so clear, he raised his arms to celebrate 10 m before the finish line. Still, he improved upon his own world record that would last for 11 years until Pietro Mennea would surpass upon it on the same track. Smith's time of 19.83 was recognized as the first automatically timed world record for the event by the IAAF, nine years later.[citation needed]

Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) showing the raised fist on the podium after the 200 m race at the 1968 Summer Olympics; both wear Olympic Project for Human Rights badges. Peter Norman (silver medalist, left) from Australia also wears an OPHR badge in solidarity with Smith and Carlos.

The 200 m winners podium was the stage for arguably one of the most iconic moments of the 20th century. As people railed against Apartheid in South Africa and racial segregation in the United States, Smith and Carlos raised their fists to show solidarity with people fighting internationally for human rights. They were booed and forced out of the Games by the president of the International Olympic Committee at the time, Avery Brundage. The third man on the podium, a white Australian named Peter Norman, was vilified by his home nation for wearing his OPHR badge in solidarity.[10]

As a member of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) he originally advocated a boycott of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games unless four conditions were met: South Africa and Rhodesia uninvited from the Olympics, the restoration of Muhammad Ali's world heavyweight boxing title, Avery Brundage to step down as president of the IOC, and the hiring of more African-American assistant coaches. As the boycott failed to achieve support after the IOC withdrew invitations for South Africa and Rhodesia, he decided, together with Carlos, to not only wear their gloves but also go barefoot to protest poverty, wear beads to protest lynchings, and wear buttons that said OPHR.[11]

Some people[who?] (particularly IOC president Avery Brundage) felt that a political statement had no place in the international forum of the Olympic Games. In an immediate response to their actions, Smith and Carlos were suspended from the U.S. team by Brundage and voluntarily moved from the Olympic Village. Brundage, who was president of the United States Olympic Committee in 1936, had made no objections against Nazi salutes during the Berlin Olympics.[12] The Nazi salute, being a national salute at the time, was accepted in a competition of nations, while the athletes' salute was not of a nation and so was considered unacceptable.[12]

Smith and Carlos faced consequences for challenging white authority in the U.S.[13] Ralph Boston, the black U.S. long jumper at the 1968 games, stated: "The rest of the world didn't seem to find it such a derogatory thing. They thought it was very positive. Only America thought it was bad."[13] The men's gesture had lingering effects for all three athletes, the most serious of which were death threats against Smith, Carlos and their families. Following their suspension by the U.S. Olympic Committee, they faced economic hardship.[13]

Athletics and career[edit]

During his career, Smith set seven individual world records and also was a member of several world-record relay teams at San Jose State, where he was coached by Lloyd (Bud) Winter. With personal records of 10.1 for 100 meters, 19.83 for 200 and 44.5 for the 400, Smith still ranks high on the world all-time lists.

Smith, who had been drafted by the National Football League's Los Angeles Rams in the ninth round of the 1967 NFL Draft, signed to play for the American Football League's Cincinnati Bengals and was part of the team's taxi squad for most of three seasons as a wide receiver.[14] During the 1969 season, he played in two games, catching one pass for 41 yards.[15][16]

After his track and football careers, he became a member of the United States National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1978. In 1996, Smith was inducted into the California Black Sports Hall of Fame, and in 1999 he received that organization's Sportsman of the Millennium Award. In 2000–2001 the County of Los Angeles and the State of Texas presented Smith with commendation, recognition and proclamation awards.[citation needed]

He later became a track coach at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he also taught sociology and until recently was a faculty member at Santa Monica College in Santa Monica, California.

His autobiography, Silent Gesture, was published in 2007 by Temple University Press.

In August 2008, Smith gave 2008 Olympic triple gold winner Usain Bolt of Jamaica one of his shoes from the 1968 Olympics as a birthday gift.[17]

In 2010, Smith put his gold medal and spikes up for auction. Bids started at $250,000, and the sale was scheduled to close November 4, 2010.[18]


Tommie Smith is featured in the 1999 HBO documentary "Fists of Freedom: The Story of the '68 Summer Games." The documentary looks at events leading up to, during and after the Olympics, featuring interviews with Smith, Carlos and sociologist Harry Edwards, journalists and archival footage of the Games and the fallout after the raised fisted gloves by Carlos and Smith.

"We were not Antichrists. We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country. I don't like the idea of people looking at it as negative. There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag – not symbolizing a hatred for it."[19]

For his lifelong commitment to athletics, education, and human rights, Smith received the Courage of Conscience Award from The Peace Abbey in Sherborn, Massachusetts.[20]

Three Proud People mural in Newtown.

In 2004, was inaugurated in his presence in Saint-Ouen, France, a sports hall bearing his name.[citation needed]

In 2005, a statue showing Smith and Carlos on the medal stand was constructed by political artist Rigo 23 and dedicated on the campus of San Jose State University.[21] Norman's silver medal position was left vacant at his request, so visitors could pose for photos in solidarity with Smith and Carlos, as Norman had stood.[22]

A mural of the photo taken with Smith on the podium at the 1968 Olympics with Carlos and Norman was painted on the brick wall of a residence in Newtown, New South Wales, Australia, titled "Three Proud People Mexico 68". The house's owner, Silvio Offria, allowed an artist known only as "Donald" to paint the mural, and said that Norman came to Newtown to see the mural and have his photo taken with it before he died in 2006.[23] The mural faces the train tracks linking Sydney city to the Western and Southern Suburbs. In 2012, the Sydney City Council heritage listed the mural to safeguard it, after it had faced possible demolition in 2010 to make way for a railway tunnel.[24] Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman's funeral in Melbourne in 2006.[23]

On July 16, 2008, Smith and Carlos accepted the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage for the salute at the 2008 ESPY Awards.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tommie Smith.
  2. ^ Silent Gesture: the autobiography of Tommie Smith (2007). Tommie Smith and David Steele. Temple University Press. p42.
  3. ^ "California State Meet Results – 1915 to present". Hank Lawson. Retrieved December 25, 2012. 
  4. ^ "Tommie's Bio". Retrieved March 6, 2013. 
  5. ^ Silent Gesture: the autobiography of Tommie Smith (2007). Tommie Smith and David Steele. Temple University Press. p70.
  6. ^ Tommie Smith, Spartacus Educational
  7. ^ Tyson Gay aims for Tommie Smith's 44-year-old record . BBC Sport (April 30, 2010). Retrieved on 2010-05-03.
  8. ^ Oddi, Vicky (May 16, 2010) Gay sprints to 19.41 world best on 200m straight. USATF Press release. Retrieved on 2015-06-13.
  9. ^ Edwards Announces Retirement. Track and Field News. Retrieved on June 13, 2015.
  10. ^ Haddow, Joshua. "We Interviewed Tommie Smith About the 1968 'Black Power' Salute". Retrieved March 6, 2013. 
  11. ^ Zirin, Dave. Resistance: the best Olympic spirit
  12. ^ a b "The Olympic Story", editor James E. Churchill, Jr., published 1983 by Grolier Enterprises Inc.
  13. ^ a b c "The Silent Salute 1968 Olympics". (2016). Pitch International LLP.
  14. ^ Moore, Kenny (August 5, 1991) [1]. Sports Illustrated
  15. ^ Tommie Smith, WR at. Retrieved on June 13, 2015.
  16. ^ Tommie Smith NFL & AFL Football Statistics.
  17. ^ Time To Dance: Usain v Asafa, Puma, August 25, 2008, Archived from the original on April 28, 2010 
  18. ^ "Tommie Smith selling '68 gold medal". Retrieved October 14, 2010. 
  19. ^ Roy, George (Director) (1999). Firsts of Freedom: The Story of the '68 Games (documentary). 
  20. ^ The Couage of Conscience Award, The Peace Abbey, retrieved August 22, 2008 
  21. ^ Crumpacker, John (October 18, 2005), OLYMPIC PROTEST: Smith and Carlos Statue captures sprinters' moment, San Francisco Chronicle, retrieved August 22, 2008 
  22. ^ Gazzaniga, Riccardo. "The White Man in That Photo". Films For Action. Retrieved 2016-07-14. 
  23. ^ a b Tovey, Josephine (July 27, 2010). "Last stand for Newtown's 'three proud people'". The Sydney Morning Herald. 
  24. ^ Campion, Vikki (July 24, 2012). "Graffiti granted wall of protection in Sydney". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved January 1, 2014. 

External links[edit]


Sporting positions
Preceded by
United States Henry Carr
Men's 200m Best Year Performance
Succeeded by
United States John Carlos