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

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
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.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen