Monday, February 25, 2008

"When Idealism Finally Gives Way To Reality"

A friend in Indiana forwarded me this article about Tommie Smith and John Carlos, which appeared in the February 22 edition of The New York Times. As the article makes evident, even though Smith and Carlos have been appearing together, they still have some major issues with each other.

I really don't think you can minimize the importance of what Smith and Carlos did at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. For those not familiar with their story, the article tells it succinctly:

Forty years ago, Smith won a gold medal and Carlos a bronze in the 200-meter race. They mounted the victory stand, raised clenched fists, and stood with heads bowed, wearing black socks and no shoes during the raising of the flag and the playing of the national anthem. For many of us, their silent demonstration — one part human rights, one part black power — is an enduring symbol of resistance and righteous indignation. For others, the demonstration was disrespectful and even treasonous. This much is certain: no one has forgotten the image.

Much more than the flamboyance of Joe Namath or the iconoclasm of Jim Bouton, the protest by Smith and Carlos on the victory stand marked a key turning point in how America viewed its athletes. At the time, Brent Musberger, a fair representation of mainstream sports media at the time, referred to the two as "black-skinned storm troopers." In Mexico City, the only sportscaster who even took the trouble to even ask Smith and Carlos (as they were on their way out of town, having been unceremoniously booted off the team) about the motivation for their actions was Howard Cosell. Smith and Carlos paid a high price for their actions, but they also paved the way for a generation of athletes who would soon begin to realize that in some instances, it was incumbent upon them to question authority.

And yet, as the article also makes clear, the two still burn with the competitive fire of the great athletes they were, and this fire threatens to trivialize what they have come to stand for. A simple joint interview devolves into some ridiculous bantering between the two that wouldn't sound out of place in a high school locker room. Frankly, they both come across as childish and petulant in this dispute. Smith takes Carlos to task for what Smith says is an inaccurate characterization of what he wrote in his autobiography about Carlos' worthiness for the Track & Field Hall of Fame. Yet, as the article goes on to say:

In fact, he wrote: “When John Carlos was inducted, I couldn’t help but think, ‘Now what did he do to get into the Hall of Fame?’ He didn’t win a gold medal, he had the 100-meter world record for about a minute, he had that bogus world record in the 200 in Lake Tahoe with the illegal shoe which was never counted. He didn’t finish college. I know that his name is there because of the victory stand. It’s another thing he has because of being on that victory stand with me.”

But even more outrageous is Carlos's claim, made in his autobiography and again during the interview, that he "gave" Smith the gold medal. It's hard to characterize this as anything but pure delusion. And thanks to modern technology, you can watch the race for yourself. Carlos may have thought he had the race won at the top of the turn, but there's no way you can convince me that he could have kept up with Smith's incredible surge towards the finish, which to this day stands as one of the all-time great moments in Olympics history.

In the end, the whole thing is sad. As the article concludes,

Tommie Smith and John Carlos were two of the greatest sprinters of their era and authors of one of the most dramatic demonstrations in Olympic history. They have 10 months left on their 40th-anniversary tour, 10 months to show idealistic students that the essence of accomplishing a great deed is mutual respect and the pull of a shared goal. Resistance and protest were the signatures of their generation. Change and hope are the calls to arms for this one.

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