Thu, 14 Oct 2021 05:00:41 GMT
At the 1968 Olympics, Tommie Smith, winner of the men’s 200 metres, stood on the podium and lifted his hand to protest racism. That moment would end his running career – and shake the world
Tommie Smith still gets chills when he hears the opening bars of The Star Spangled Banner. It takes him right back to that night in October 1968 when he stood on the Olympic podium in Mexico City, wearing his gold medal, and made the raised-fist salute that has defined his life. “It’s kind of a push, when I hear ‘dum, da-dum’,” he says, singing the opening notes of the United States national anthem. “Because that’s the first three notes I heard in Mexico, then my head went down, and I saw no more of it until the last note.”
While the anthem played, all that was going through Smith’s head, he says, was “prayer and pain”. Pain because he had picked up a thigh injury that day on the way to winning the 200m final (he still set a world record). And prayer because Smith was not just putting his career on the line – he was risking his life. There was a real possibility that somebody in the stadium might try to shoot him or his team-mate John Carlos, who was making the salute beside him after winning bronze. In the months leading up to the Olympics, he had been receiving death threats. Two weeks before, Mexican police had fired into a crowd of student protesters, killing as many as 300 people. Martin Luther King had been assassinated just six months earlier. So Smith fully expected that the last thing he would hear, halfway through The Star Spangled Banner, would be a gunshot. “So when I hear that ‘dum, da-dum’, I get chills,” he says. “I got chills then when I sang it,” he laughs, holding out his arms to show the hairs standing on end.