Wednesday, July 11, 2012

GUEST POST Tommie Smith: The man behind the image

This is an extract from The Other Olympics: Playing with Identity by Matt Roebuck. It describes the day he met Tommie Smith, the man at the centre of this controversial image.

I was at the International Children’s Games in Lanarkshire and had spent the last three days at a conference discussing how to use utilise sport and the conclusion was that if sport is a platform to be built upon, then for sport to be a force for good, the message surrounding sport must lead people towards a choice of ethical and healthy behaviour. A movement with the size and universality of the Olympics has always found governments, companies and individuals who look to abuse Olympism. If the Olympics wishes, as it claims, to transcend sport, then a proactive approach to ethics and an engagement with a community beyond sport is a must.

The actions of Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman in 1968 are one of the greatest examples of this power and the consequences that all three faced from the sporting authorities should be the shame of all those at the heart of sport.

Heroes – Past and Future

Having flexed my academic muscles, the next day I returned trackside to the International Children’s Games athletics meet. In East Kilbride I was fortunate enough to encounter the man who is probably the most well-known for using the Olympic stage as a platform to promote an ethical and indeed a political stance.

“That’s right son.” My greatest living sporting hero had just called me son. I shook his hand and as we talked he agreed with my views on the power of sport, yet this still wasn’t the highlight of my day.

He probably calls everybody son. Nevertheless I sat as a disciple at the feet of an Olympic hero, a true legend beyond his sport. The configuring of the small benched track stand by the Leisure Centre Athletics track meant I was literally sat at his feet.

You may not know this man by name, you may not recognise his aged features but his image is one of the most iconic of the 20th century. I swear it was even briefly featured on the Simpsons, though I can’t find the picture.

Tommie Smith is the man atop the podium accepting gold for his victory in the Mexico 1968 Olympics’ 200 metres sprint. In that iconic image he and the bronze medallist John Carlos hold up alternate outstretched fists. On those fists is a single black glove. Look this event up on Wikipedia and it refers to social anthropologist Orin Starn’s editorial “Bottom line turns to hollow gold for today’s Olympians” lamenting “the lack of social engagement of modern sports athletes, in contrast to Smith and Carlos.”

As we talked, Smith still referred to himself as a controversial character and even an outcast. They certainly were, even receiving death threats. The attention he received on a blustery day in central Scotland suggested that was less the case now, at least it was in this company. The aftermath for the third athlete, the white Peter Norman is less well known.

Norman took to the podium wearing an Olympic Movement for Human Rights pin badge in support of the Americans’ actions. Peter was ostracised in his Australian homeland for doing so. He failed to achieve selection for the 1968 Tokyo Games despite having posted the fourth quickest time in the world. The Sydney 2000 Games were supposed to represent a reconciliation with Australia’s own race issues and the Aborigines. When the Olympic medallists of Australia were invited to the closing ceremony, Norman’s invitation was missing. Peter Norman died in 2006.

Smith went onto teach sociology and track. He continues to use Sport as a tool, “To some people I’m an outcast but through the foundation in my name I’m able to make a difference. It’s not about using sport for a political means now, it’s about using it for health and wellness.”

This man knew the stage the medal had put him on and he was determined to use it. I watched whilst local children using the games to learn the skills of journalism took the opportunity to interview him. A boy was ushered by his teacher towards the large crowd of media lining up to meet Smith by the finishing line. A whole interview was conducted about Tommie’s involvement with the Tommie Smith Youth Initiative and the Oakland track team before the boy was told that Tommie had won a gold medal. The boys eyes lit up and he asked to shake Tommie’s hand.

The Tommie Smith Youth Initiative works across a number of states in poor inner city neighbourhoods. Athletics is the draw, but to receive coaching kids must attend sessions “every Saturday morning dealing with health, wellness, camaraderie, speech and different things which the classrooms don’t really put a lot of emphasis on.” Tommie didn’t want to just use sport as a diversionary tool, he and his wife were committed to building positive structures that would surround it.

“It’s not just about keeping kids off the streets, it’s about educationally qualifying them to move on viably in life.”

The girls they’d brought to the games weren’t necessarily the most athletically gifted of those on the program. Oakland like many cities had come to these games in order to provide a goal for their children and the opportunity to benefit through cultural exchange. Lanarkshire chose to send their best athletes as a reward for their dedication in training.


Coincidentally, the highlight of my day also involved Mexico. It was a conversation with a girl who has no iconic image. No one knows who this girl was, I didn’t even catch her name but when I met her she was bravely holding back the tears, signing an autograph for some local infants and their mum.

She was a swimmer and she had come fourth. She was fourth by only hundredths of a second, she was angry, devastated and pawed a wet, crumpled tissue in her hand. This wasn’t my highlight because of some twisted schadenfreude. It became my highlight because I was able to lift her, not with the same old platitudes and ‘better luck next time’ but with a tale of Seb Coe. I’d heard this tale at a conference delivered by a top sports psychologist brought in to do the inspirational job Scott Hastings had provided in Lanarkshire.

Coe apparently says the most important race of his life is one he lost after bolting too early. In this race, at least for the purposed of my tale, Seb had come fourth. Why was this the most important result of his life? It was because from this race he learnt the most and it spurred him towards future success.

“Maybe you lost today but if you take how you feel now and learn from it maybe you’ll win the Pan-American Games, even the Olympics one day. There is always another opportunity, when is your next race?”


“Well there you go.”

“You know what, Seb Coe can’t even swim.” She didn’t know who Seb Coe was but I thought this was somehow relevant. I’d only just heard this myself when he was reported as using it as an excuse for not joining the press at the opening of the London Olympic swimming pool. I guess in pursuit of excellence in one field, important life lessons can be missed. More importantly she was smiling and I treated myself to a piece of cake.

As I wandered back to catch a bus to the airport I passed another team from the United States.

“He was asking a legit question.” A girl responded angrily to her compatriot.

“I’m not a tourist information,” the boy shouted back.

“There was no need to be so rude,” she countered. It made me smile to hear this peer group insisting that more social lessons were to be learnt by their colleagues.

The young Mexican was the highlight of my day because it reminded me just how much I enjoyed coaching. It also proved that the daily life experiences that surround sport can be just as rewarding as that once in a lifetime opportunity to meet your hero. As I left the games that day, I imagined Tommie giving me a pat on the back and another “well done son.”

Tommie Smith knows that politics and sport do mix because both grow out of community. Sport can be used and sport can be abused. The Other Olympics: Playing with Identity visits 13 alternative games each promoting a specific identity. The Other Olympics goes shopping with the Palestinian National Football team at the Arab Games in Qatar. It dances the conga with the South Wales Police and watches firemen running up the rebuilt World Trade Center 7 at the World Police and Fire Games. It meets those running with their new hearts and promoting organ donation at the World Transplant Games and has a cup of tea and a chat about the future of the Olympics with IOC member the Princess of Liechtenstein.

If you have enjoyed this extract then please consider buying The Other Olympics: Playing with Identity. You may also be interested in Salute: The Movie.


Anonymous said...

Thought provoking.

Why are their heads hung? That creates a submissive image contrary to the message?

Paul W said...

I bet Brezhnev raised glass to Tommie Smith.

I've never really understood exactly what he was protesting about and why he thought it was the right time and place to do it.

It seems however to have been a good long-term career move.