At the age of seven, John Carlos experienced a distressing premonition. He was standing on a box in a stadium. “I’d achieved something remarkable, but before I could raise my arm to acknowledge the people cheering for me, the sunshine and good times turned to stormy weather and venom,” says Carlos. It was a vision that would come back to haunt him 15 years later.
It’s Wednesday October 16, 1968, the second day of the XIX Olympiad in Mexico City. After a thrilling 200m final, in which they finished third and first respectively, American athletes Carlos and Smith returned to the Olympic Stadium for the medal presentation. It was time for what Carlos called the ‘after-race’. Poised on the podium in front of 50,000 spectators and millions of TV viewers worldwide, as the opening bars of the Star-Spangled Banner kicked in, they took the stand that was to alter the trajectory of their young lives.
“From the moment we bowed our heads and raised our clenched, black-gloved fists, everyone went into a state of shock. You could have heard a frog piss on cotton,” recalls Carlos. A torrent of abuse rained down from some of the large contingent of American fans in the stands. “Screaming the national anthem, they had disdain for what they were seeing. The first thing that went through my mind was, ‘S**t, that’s what that vision was about’. Thoughts were zigzagging through my brain like lightning bolts, from things my dad told me he’d endured in the armed forces to my own experiences growing up as a kid in Harlem.” His vision had become a reality.
Plotting the course
Excelling at basketball, boxing and swimming as a youngster, Carlos initially never thought of athletics, but the ‘uncatchable’ youth had an unorthodox method of honing his sprinting talent. Robbing freight trains of their food loads to share among the people in the community, he and his friends – Harlem’s ‘Robin Hoods’ – would regularly outsprint chasing police. “The only time I became aware of my ability was when the police told me I had talent.” Which is something you probably won’t find in a coaching manual.
Alongside a sporting awakening came a political one. As an athlete, Carlos was part of the Olympic Project For Human Rights (OPHR), which aimed to expose the hypocrisy of how the US expected black athletes to win sporting glory for a nation that still treated them as second-class citizens. The civil rights movement had made giant strides in dismantling the legislation of discrimination – with voting rights restored and segregation in Southern states ended – but in everyday life racist attitudes persisted. Educational and job opportunities for African-Americans lagged massively behind those in the white community and there were continuing incidences of harsh treatment form a still largely white police force. A couple of years earlier, American-football players had boycotted playing in New Orleans after black players were repeatedly refused service in hotels and rides in taxis.
The OPHR’s efforts to organise an African-American athletes’ boycott of the 1968 games (under the slogan ‘Why run in Mexico only to crawl at home?’) led to a meeting with African-American civil rights leader Martin Luther King in New York City, an event that remains vividly etched in Carlos’s memory.
“I’d received a call informing me of a meeting, that Dr King wanted to support the boycott,” says Carlos. “Just being in his presence blew me away. Despite numerous threats to his life at that time, I looked into his eyes and saw no fear, only love. I remember him saying that he ‘had to stand for those who can’t, and those who won’t stand for themselves’. That’s basically what I was trying to do.”
In the wake of King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, the boycott defused, but disillusionment remained. Mexico City proved the ideal place for Carlos to express his feelings. “Following the 200m heats, I expressed my disenchantment at the collapse of the boycott to Tommie. I wanted to make a statement and he concurred. We wanted to do something that was non-violent and dignified, yet shocking and potent to the point that it would educate and resurrect people’s consciences. Something people would be talking about for years to come.
“Tommie had black gloves, which we decided we’d wear to represent strength and unity,” says Carlos. “The beads around our necks would represent the history of lynching and we would roll up our pants and wear no shoes, just black socks, to illustrate the poverty among black Americans.”
When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) got wind of the potential protests, they called upon American track and field icon Jesse Owens, who emphatically shattered the Nazi belief in Aryan supremacy by winning four gold medals in Berlin 32 years earlier. It was a desperate attempt by IOC President Avery Brundage (a man who opposed a boycott of the 1936 Olympics in protest at Hitler’s exclusion of Jewish athletes) to prevent any planned action. “Having used Jesse Owens when he returned from Berlin in 1936, they’d basically buried him,” says Carlos. “Then when we thought about doing something symbolic, they found Jesse, put a suit on him, some money in his pocket and told him to read the script to us in the locker room.
“He talked from his heart, explaining what damage he felt we’d be doing to ourselves by threatening an Olympic protest, but he was old-school, we were new,” says Carlos. “We made it clear to him that had he maybe done more in 1936, we wouldn’t have to do this 32 years later. All my respect and admiration goes out to Jesse Owens, who he was as an athlete and as a man. However, we had altogether different ideas on how the matter should be resolved.”
Running to stand still
When the 200m Olympic final came, despite breaking the Olympic record in his semi-final (20.11 seconds), Carlos only had one prize on his mind.
“I didn’t care if I won gold, silver or bronze, I wasn’t there for the race, I was there for the after-race,” says Carlos. “I could have won that race had I wanted to, but it didn’t mean anything to me. People say that’s hogwash and they’re entitled to their opinion, but I know what happened in my heart. I was never the typical track and field athlete stuck on medals and place. I didn’t need a gold medal to know that I was a winner. The aspect that appealed to me was how many people would be turned on by what they saw me do, bringing joy to the people. Tommie idolised gold medals. That was his forte, so I had no problem with him winning (in a world record time of 19.87 seconds). I was a little outdone by the Australian Peter Norman (second in 20.06 seconds). I’d lost my focus (he finished third in 20.10 seconds). The last 20m was the best part of Peter’s race and I’d forgotten about him until we were 20m from the tape. I’d been striding for 75m, so how was I going to start sprinting again?”
As Carlos and Smith made their gesture under the glare of the watching world, the podium suddenly became a very lonely place. But they found a comrade in the Australian silver medallist. Norman was a staunch critic of his country’s White Australia policy, which actively encouraged immigration of white Europeans while discriminating against ‘non-white’ immigrants (and persisted until the use of racially based selection criteria was banned in 1975). He demonstrated his solidarity on the podium by wearing an OPHR badge on his chest.
“Peter was far more than someone who just put a button on,” recalls Carlos. “He was there with us.” One of the best sprinters in his nation’s history, Norman’s actions were fiercely criticised Down Under, something he shouldered right up to his death five years ago. His support that night started a close bond between the trio, culminating in Carlos and Smith acting as pallbearers at Norman’s funeral, leaving an OPHR badge on his coffin.
But empathy was in short supply for the Americans away from the podium. They were immediately sent home from the Olympic village by Brundage, and then the devastating secondary effects took hold. Press condemnation began overnight and they were treated like pariahs. With money and work scarce, Carlos quickly went from ‘Neighbourhood Hero’ to ‘Neighbourhood Bum’, as he puts it. “I knew the situation was serious from day one,” he recalls. “The threats started coming in immediately, but we had received a tremendous amount of threats leading up to the Games – even bullets in the mail.”
While ultimately their act proved more potent than the threats, Carlos admits that one of the most agonising aspects after the event was how friends stepped away when he needed them most. “When you do something as powerful as we did, it’s like being at the top of a big pine tree. When that branch breaks, you think all the other branches are there to catch you,” says Carlos. “That turned out to be false, because no one was there to comfort us at that time. People were afraid of reprisals based on association. That’s something you grapple with for a while until you have a better understanding why it was like that.”
Living with those reprisals was a heavy burden, with money troubles, constant threats, depression and growing friction with Smith as the domino after-effects played out. According to Carlos, Smith, whose mother was on the receiving end of threatening letters and died of a heart attack in 1970, became difficult to contact and unwilling to participate in any joint action. The pair eventually fell out and didn’t speak until they reconciled in the run-up to the salute’s 40th anniversary in 2008. According to Carlos, there was also persistent hounding from the FBI, with surveillance officers constantly following him and cars parked outside his house. Carlos also believes the FBI obtained pictures taken after he spoke at events when he was asked to pose with women, which were then sent to his wife with false messages stating the women were his mistresses. This aggravated his wife’s fragile mental state, contributing to the unravelling of the family and ultimately to her taking her own life in 1977.
So, going through all that, did he ever regret making the gesture? “You only regret something if you’re wrong,” he replies. “The fact that you take an ass-whipping and you know that in your heart you were right, you just take it and keep on stepping. I accepted the consequences because I believed that I was doing the right thing. Here we are, 43 years later, and I still believe what I did was right. My first wife Kim took her life as a result of what was going on and that’s the only regret that I have. But the act was far greater than my life or hers.
“Someone had to be the sacrificial lamb to bring attention to these situations in society. We no longer had to hear, ‘You guys have to wait, your day is coming.’ Our age group decided enough was enough: we were tired of waiting, we wanted results today.”
Back on the podium
In 2005, Carlos became Dr Carlos after San Jose State University in California bestowed honorary doctorate degrees on their past alumni, and erected a statue of the podium scene in commemoration of the event. Norman nobly suggested his spot be left vacant, allowing visitors to stand in his place alongside the statues of Smith and Carlos. In the latter’s eyes, this gesture was a testament to his friend’s qualities. “I don’t think that out of 10 million guys, you would find one that would consider bailing out so people can stand in that spot. The love, admiration and respect that I have for him swelled to breaking point from that moment,” he says. “And the statue gives a message to the students that you can be diverse in your thoughts in life, be an activist and make a change. They can look at the statue to know that Tommie Smith and John Carlos were just two young runners at that stage.”
Now in his role as guidance counsellor at Palm Springs High School, California, Carlos is making a small difference every day. And even after all these years, that moment in 1968 remains as fresh in his mind as it was then. “I hear the national anthem in my classroom every day and the second they play it and salute the flag, those memories come back. I smile about it now because so many people have opened their eyes to the realities of the society in which we live, more so than 43 years ago.”
This article was first published in the November 2011 issue of Runner's World
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