A silent hero’s long journey
He agrees to pose once more, for the picture: eyes closed, arms straight up in the air, his right fist clenched. Almost like 50 years ago, when he was standing on the winner’s podium at the Olympic Games in Mexico.
Today, he is standing in the basement of his house near Atlanta, in front of a painting that was created one month after his gesture of protest. The painting shows Tommie on the winner’s podium, the statue of liberty as a background foil. Freedom was and is Tommie Smith’s main objective. This private room of his house, which he only rarely invites people to, documents his life. There are all his trophies and medals. Countless cover pages featuring his success and life are framed on the wall. A cabinet displays a golden running shoe: Usain Bolt’s shoe. „We traded shoes; he owns one of mine“, Tommie Smith recounts. Both, Bolt and Smith, were sprint heros, with Smith having won more world records in total. When he had made it to the final of the 200 meter sprint run in 1968, he was naturally bound to win. Not only because of another sports victory, however.
He sought to use the winner’s podium as a public platform for his protest against race discrimination, violence against African Americans, and human rights abuses in general. Ten meters before crossing the finish line, he already threw up his arms. He knew, he had run towards another victory, holding another world record. Jointly with John Carlos, who had won third place in the race, they walked to the winner’s podium just in black socks – a symbol for poverty. When the US national anthem started, they lowered their heads, and raised a clenched fist clothed in a black glove. A silent gesture that went around the globe. The photograph has made its way into public memory. Most people still know it.
Tommie Smith, however, lost everything after this protest. He was at the peak of his career as a sprinter, when he was denied to ever compete again. He received severe death threats. When asked whether he had anticipated the consequences of his protest, he clearly states: „Yes, of course.” And he adds: „I have no regrets”.
Tommie Smith is a role model to many athletes of the National Federation League who protest race discrimination today. Twice during the last year of his presidency, Barack Obama invited him to the White House. He, who was once ostracized, has become a hero. It has been a long journey to run for the former world sprint champion Tommie Smith.