A raised arm, black power and Olympic trauma

Tommie Smith's salute is recalled in a new film

The veteran sprinter is reminiscing about just what it feels like to go to the blocks in an Olympic final. He makes it sound like a dead man's walk.

"It is certainly traumatic, it is certainly traumatic," the sprinter repeats the phrase. "You know, looking around, walking in a stadium is an experience that only those in the field can feel. You work all these years competing against some of the best people in the world and then you get to the final race. It goes beyond human imagination to the point where you forget where you are and you go back to your childhood, thinking 'how did I get here?' You look around at these world-class athletes and if you're not very careful, you can lose your race before you start by thinking everybody else is better than you are and what are you doing here?"

Whatever the state of his nerves, the sprinter in question ran an immaculate race. He whipped past the finishing line of the 200 metres final at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 in an astonishing time of 19.83 seconds.

Tommie Smith was 24 at the time, younger than Jamaican champion sprinter Usain Bolt is now. "Aged 24, my speed and Usain Bolt's speed were about the same," Smith says today. The assumption was that he would get even faster. However, when he and third-placed fellow African-American athlete John Carlos went to the podium, they raised their fists in a Black Power salute. The gesture caused outrage at the International Olympic Committee, which dubbed it a "violent breach" of the Olympic spirit. Smith and Carlos were vilified, as was the white Australian silver medallist Peter Norman (who supported their gesture.) The story of the friendship between the three men is told in the documentary Salute, shortly to be released in the UK.

"He [Norman] was a man of his word and a man of honesty." Smith pays tribute to the Australian sprinter. "He believed in rights for all men. He was a true friend and he went through some of the same things that Carlos and I did," Smith remembers of how all three men suffered because of their gesture in support of human rights. Norman didn't raise an arm but he wore an "Olympic Project For Human Rights Badge" –itself a defiant act – and he suggested that Carlos should wear Smith's left glove. As a result, he was ostracised by the Australian media and the country's Olympic selectors, who never picked him again.

After Mexico 1968, Smith's own Olympic career was over. If he is bitter about the way he was treated by the Olympic movement, he is not showing it. He relishes the friendships that the Olympics can help foster between athletes all over the world. However, he has no illusions about the machinations that go behind the scenes whenever the Games are staged.

"The politics of it is a different story. Those who contend that there are no politics in the Olympic Games are speaking with false tongues."

Ask him today if he has mixed feelings about that moment in 1968 when his salute effectively ended his athletics career and he replies: "I regret the fact that I had to do that to bring out the truth about a country that didn't honour the rights of its constitution."

No, he says today, he didn't know that making the Black Power salute was going to curtail his athletics career. "But had I known, it wouldn't have made any difference," he insists.

Would he have won more Olympic medals? He ponders the question. "I certainly would have run. I don't know if I would have been the fastest – but whoever was ahead of me would have been in trouble!"

'Salute' is released in cinemas on 13 July and DVD on 30 July

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones