Olympic Athlete


Olympic Athlete – Tommie Smith Essay, Research Paper


The late 1960 s was a period of tumultuous uproar and uncertainty. Using the World of Crayola Crayons as an analogy, the two primary colors that were at the center of this turmoil were black and white. For illustration purposes, let s say someone takes a black crayon and draws a straight line on a white piece of paper. Now, if someone handed you the piece of paper and told you to analyze it, what would your first thought be? What the heck is a black line doing on the white piece of paper, right? Although this example may be perceived as childish, from a humanitarian standpoint, it demonstrates the position that America was in during the 1960 s. At the pinnacle of the sixties were the assassinations of J.F.K., Malcolm X, and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Then of course there was the establishment of the United Farm Workers Association by Cesar Chavez. And don t forget about the hippie movement, the Cuban Missle Crisis, the emergence of the infamous Motown sound, and the first men to walk on the moon. Ahhh and finally, who could forget the valiant, yet controversial display of black pride exhibited by John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico.

Tommie Smith was born on June 12, 1944, in Clarksville, Texas. Tommie later attended San Jose State, where he was coached by another Hall of Famer, Bud Winter. At a height of 6-3 and 185 pounds, Tommie Smith was said to have had an ideal build for a long sprinter. He was the record holder for the 200-meter dash from 1966 to 1971. His best time was 19.83 seconds, which was the first time that this distance was run in less than twenty seconds. Tommie was also a record holder for the straightaway 200-yard dash from 1965 to 1979, in 19.5 seconds. He was a member of the 4X4 200-meter relay team that set a world record of 1 minute, 22.1 seconds. The record remained unbroken from 1967 to 1970.

Smith competed for San Jose State College in California, and in the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City and won the gold medal for the 200-meter race, however, he and his teammate John Carlos, were suspended by the United Stated Olympic Committee and ordered to leave Mexico for giving a black power salute while receiving their awards. This medal ceremony has been described as the most popular, and politically charged medal ceremony of all time. The photographs of two African American sprinters standing on the medal podium with heads bowed and fists raised proved to be a huge milestone in America s civil rights movement. The notion presented was that Smith and Carlos were perhaps motivated by the suggestion of a friend of the two men, a young sociologist by the name of Harry Edwards. Edwards had asked them as well as all of the other African American athletes to join together and boycott the games. It was Edward s hope that the protest would bring attention to the fact that America s civil rights movement had not gone far enough to eliminate all of the injustices that African Americans were faced with at this time. Although an official boycott never materialized, Edward s group, the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) gained the support of several world-class athletes and civil rights leaders.

As a result of Edward s passionate words, Smith and Carlos secretly planned a non-violent protest in the manner of Martin Luther King Jr. As the American flag rose, and the Star Spangled Banner played, the two men closed their eyes, bowed their heads and began their silent protest. Smith was quoted as saying that he raised his black-glove-covered fist in the air to represent black power in America. Together, Smith and Carlos formed an arch of unity and power. The black scarf that Smith wore around his neck stood for black pride and their black socks (and no shoes) represented black poverty in racist America. This became an episode that darkened the lives of Smith (and Carlos) for years to come.

I have no regrets, I had no regrets, I will never have any regrets, Smith reported during a phone conversation with the Associated Press from his home phone in Santa Monica, California. We were there to stand up for human rights and to stand up for black Americans. We wanted to make them better in the United States. Despite his comment that he does not have nor will ever have any regrets, Smith said that the protest became detrimental to his life. He has had to fight to get back the respect and admiration that once had been his. Things reportedly became so bad for Tommie Smith that when he made his return to school, he had to take night classes to avoid the negative attitudes and persecution of others. He no longer wanted to be seen and reported that the situation became life threatening.

Many people believed that the political statements had no place in the supposedly apolitical Olympic games. Those that opposed the protest complained that the actions displayed by both men were militant and disgraced Americans. Supporters of the silent protest were moved by their actions and praised them for their bravery.

In my opinion, no matter what your political standpoint may be, it took a great deal of courage for these men to use this opportunity of success to stand up for what they believed in. Simply put, equality for all. I do agree however, that their actions may have been slightly extreme, but it is apparent that there were no malicious thoughts behind their actions. They were just trying to get others to stand up and take notice of the injustices that were being done to African Americans during this time. Nothing can be said to dispute the fact that Smith was willing to sacrifice millions in financial endeavors for being an Olympic champion in order to make a statement for his people. The Olympics, Smith said, is the one place where a common man could have the attention of the world .

After graduating from San Jose State University, Tommie Smith played professional football with the Cincinnati Bengals for three years. He later became a track coach at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he also taught sociology, and at Santa Monica College in California. Tommie Smith was a man who began his college career with the mindset of many young athletes who just want their name to be known, they want to be made famous for their athletic accomplishments. Smith, however was one of two men willing to put that dream in the background while seeking to be noticed for something much more valuable, equality for himself and his fellow black Americans.


An excellent search engine for information


Factmonster is a wonderful source for both historical and current world events


An excellent site for information on famous African-American people


A popular and very informative Encyclopedia website


New York Times discussion forum website


Tommie Smith s official web page


A newspaper from the state of Georgia (personal interview)


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