Undici in partnership with Puma Eyewear presents #NoCage, a collection of 12 stories of past and contemporary athletes that have changed the history of sports, overcoming the barriers and obstacles in their path thanks to determination and willpower.
His right fist, in a black glove, outstretched to the sky without a hint of arrogance. A dark scarf around his neck and his head bowed, in a paradoxically intimate moment of reflection, while the whole world’s eyes focused on him. The glittering gold medal around his neck seemed to weigh a ton. This is how Tommie Smith took his place in history. Captured forever, in the time frame of a stationary image. On top of the Olympic podium, as winner of the two hundred meters in Mexico City, on October 17th, 1968. Like a black Christ in the Us Olympic uniform, in a Golgotha pop-like triptych, flanked by the Australian Peter Norman and his African American compatriot, John Carlos. Three formidable athletes, for whom no heavenly realm would open its doors in the years to come, instead, only the irreversible hell of marginalization awaited. But just the day before the closing ceremony, the three had run an unforgettable race. Under a muggy gray sky, heavy with clouds, John Carlos set off like lightning, burning almost everything in his body. In the final sprint, only 30 meters from the finish line, Smith – known as Tommie the Jet – overtook him, raising his arms to the sky as he crossed the finish line. Having had a bad start, in the first hundred meters Norman found himself in sixth position, but even he had a chance to mock Carlos during the frightening final progression of the race.
200m men final 1968
The winner, Tommie Smith, with his time of 19″83, became the first man to win the two hundred meters in under 20″. His record would stand for eleven years, until the challenge was raised on the very same track by Pietro Mennea from Barletta, a bony standard bearer from another “south”, who overcame issues connected to his southern origins with the unbeatable force of extreme willpower. This would be enough for Mr. Smith to set his very common surname in the history of athletics, but the heroism of that noble-looking Afro-American equipped with the thin beard of an Ethiopian prince, lay not only in being the fastest man in the world. His dark, shining eyes reflected all of his human story, as solemn and gin-cracked as a blues ballad. Born on June 6th, 1944, the day the Americans invaded Normandy, Smith was a Texan from Clerksville. In the fifties Tommie was just a skinny kid, the seventh of twelve children, bent over all day in the cotton fields with his father and brothers.
One day he contracted a devastating bout of pneumonia, which nearly proved lethal, but while his chest burned and he held onto his soul by his teeth, he could not even begin to imagine that only a few years later, those burning lungs would take him to the top of the world. Around him, Texas – like all of the southern states – was still immersed in suffocating racial segregation that exercised relentlessly, everywhere: in schools, on public transport, in restaurants and hospitals. But on the horizon, a Baptist pastor in Atlanta armed with but a dream, was becoming a staunch preacher of civil disobedience in the name of a non-violent struggle for racial equality. This was Martin Luther King, who on April 4th, 1968 – just before Tommie Smith ran in Mexico – would be killed by a gunshot to the head in his Memphis motel. That fated time, which would be defined as the “short century”, seemed to be living one of its angriest periods as Bobby Kennedy was also killed on June 4th.
The Black Power Salute
On October 2nd, 1968, La Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City would see the horror of the Tlatelolco massacre play out. Military weapons, armored vehicles and combat vehicles opened fire on a crowd of protesters, killing about three hundred people. And thus, a bloodbath marked the opening of the Mexican Olympics. A year earlier, Harry Edwards a sociologist from Berkeley and mid-weight discus thrower, gave shape to a utopic dream called Ophr, or the Olympic program for human rights. African American athletes participating in the project demanded that black coaches be added to the staff of the American team and disputed the re-admission of the Apartheid South African team to the Olympics, weighing in with the threat of boycotting the Olympics en masse. In the end, they would not drop out of the races, opting rather for a symbolic protest, which each athlete exercised under the spotlight of an unrepeatable media limelight in whatever symbolic form they could communicate.
A distinctive, rosette-like mark defined those who endorsed Edward’s idea. Enrolled at the University of San José, where America’s strongest sprinters trained, Smith and Carlos were steeped in the mood of protest that blew through California at the time. They ran like arrows and studied sociology. In particular, Tommie Smith was fascinated by the Constitution and Thomas Jefferson’s speeches. Before the Mexican Olympics, he won thirteen university athletics records on both track and field. In contrast, John Carlos came from Harlem. As the son of a World War I veteran born of two slaves, he lived his childhood on the streets, using his astonishing rapidity to steal from moving trains. And it would be exactly this speed that would get him out of the ghetto, and win him a scholarship to San José.
Straight after the Olympic competition, they came up with a final, non-violent gesture of rebellion. They wanted to try and bring the subversive power of the Black Power movement to the still disassociated circus of the Olympics. Think back to Jesse Owens, the African-American champion who triumphed at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 in front of a stunned Hitler. And of how Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on his return home, treated him much worse than the Führer. The president, in the midst of his election campaign, did not want to alienate the electorate of the Southern States. He carefully avoided inviting the athlete to the White House, relegating the black athlete to a sad double role: he became a useful banner for the Yankees superiority in the Olympics and a mere negro like all the others when the international spotlights had been switched off. Smith and Carlos did not want to follow Jesse’s fate. They were determined to write a new chapter in African American history. In the underpass leading from the locker room to the podium, the Australian silver medalist Peter Norman observed their ritual preparation, intrigued. Every gesture they made in that underpass was symbolically specific. By taking off their shoes they evoked the poverty that they had lived on their own skin, then Carlos put on a necklace of stones, with each pebble symbolizing the memory of a lynched black man who fought for his rights. Smith raised his right fist as a sign of the strength of the black people while Carlos raised his left fist to signify their unity, but they had a small problem: Carlos had forgotten his black gloves at the Olympic village. Only Smith had a pair, bought for him by his wife.
Norman, seduced by the cause of his fellows on the podium, settled the question: “Wear one glove apiece. And give me a symbol too. I may be white, but I am with you”. Norman was a member of the Salvation Army, an international evangelical movement with a strong social focus. In his hometown, Melbourne, he has seen the horrors of discrimination against the Aborigines. He put on a lapel pin of the Ophr and climbs onto the podium. Smith raised his right fist, Carlos his left. And meanwhile, amidst the silence of the Mexican stadium, The star spangled banner resonated loudly as the triumphant anthem of the United States, although it did not seem to belong to those on stage, not even a little. After the ceremony, the words “You will regret this for the rest of your life” uttered by Payton Jordan – then head of the US delegation –, would ring in their ears, while the reaction of Avery Brundage – president of the International Olympic Committee and well known for his ill-concealed Nazi sympathies –, was as violent as it was swift: both athletes were suspended from the US team and expelled from the Olympic village, on accusations of having secretly accepted money for the US boycott. The ostracism they faced proved relentless – a cruel punishment that was meant as a warning to anyone who wished to follow their example.
At twenty-five, Smith, the fastest man in the world, was already an ex-racer. Forced to survive by washing cars for a living while the Ku Klux Klan delivered tons of dung and death threats to his home with punctual regularity. The army expelled him, citing his dishonor related to “un-American activities”. This exclusion would however be his salvation, ensuring he would avoid being called up for Vietnam. In the meanwhile, Carlos oscillated between brief experiences in American football and jobs as a drain cleaner in the port of New York and a bouncer for nightclubs. After years of telephone threats received in the middle of the night, his wife would commit suicide. In Australia, Norman would not fare any better. Exceeding the qualifying time for the two hundred meters thirteen times, and that of the one hundred meters five times, his federation excluded him from the German Olympics of 1972 without any explanation. He also tried football, but an injury to his Achilles tendon forced him to quit. He would end up teaching physical education, working in the trade unions and surviving on a meager income earned behind a butcher’s counter. He was not even invited to the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Where, with his 20″06’ time from the Mexican Olympics – still an unbeaten Australian record – he would have won gold.
Over the years, his two African-American friends were, in some ways, reintegrated. The University of San José remembered them, taking them on as a physical education coaches, and even dedicated a monument to them. They would once again become immersed in the world of sport, and thanks to their role as coaches, continued to tell their story to future generations. Norman, however, this would not be the case: his marginalization would be final. When he died of a heart attack on October 9, 2006, his friends Smith and Carlos were there to bear the weight of his coffin. “In Mexico City, there were two blacks and one white: we were three human beings. If the two of us were both kicked in the ass in turn, Peter faced a whole country and suffered alone. But he was never sorry for his act of solidarity. And neither were we”.