Dr Tommie Smith - a Living Legend
On Wednesday 11th July, Operation Black Vote in partnership with Freshwater UK Plc and Arrow Films hosted a packed audience including Peers, Ambassadors, British sports stars and celebrities who turned out to welcome the legendary Olympic gold medallist, civil rights activist and devout Christian Tommie Smith for the UK film premiere of Salute.
The documentary (written and directed by the late Peter Norman’s nephew Matt Norman) recounts the events of the iconic moment during the 1968 Olympic Games in which Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised their clenched fists in a Black Power salute. On the podium with the two US athletes was the second place Australian Peter Norman, who showed his solidarity by wearing a human rights badge.
It also follows the experience of the three men after their humanitarian gesture. Tommie Smith is still ostracised by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) who have yet to recognise his feat of being the first person to break the 20 second barrier in the 200m track event with a hall of fame invite. The two US athletes faced vilification when they got back home, but could always confide in each other, where as Peter Norman had to fight the criticism alone.
The trio sacrificed fame and fortune so that the African American plight could be expressed with a global reach. Smith and Carlos were immediately expelled from the Olympics and their athletics careers ruined. Peter Norman won silver, equalling the previous 200m record and today still holds the Australian 200m record. Despite his efforts, his track career was also over. Like the others he was alienated and eventually faded out of the public eye. Even with the opportunity at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 to get Norman involved, the Australian Olympic committee continued to shun him.
During the screening there were cheers and applauds when it showed Tommie winning the race and also during the salute. The audience recognised the significance of these moments and duly responded. The documentary was filmed and cut between various meetings between the trio and a few individual interviews. It is very intimate and insightful, with the film making no bones about the context in both the United States and Australia which shaped the salute and its aftermath.
The premiere screening was followed by a Question and Answer session chaired by Trevor Phillips OBE, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission with a panel that included Smith, 1984 Olympic Gold Medallist Tessa Sanderson CBE and Double FA Cup Winner Garth Crooks OBE. Questions raised included those surrounding Mr Smith’s background, his continued snub by the USOC as well as what may have happened on and off the track if he and Jon Carlos did not raise their fists on the podium in Mexico City. The panel were also asked questions on racism in sport today and whether responses from the current generation of Black sports stars have been adequate.
Following the Q&A session signed copies off Tommy Smith’s book were sold and an impromptu auction was held for a signed poster of the iconic moment.
Vandna Gohil, Director of Voice4Change who attended the event said,
He has passed the baton to us and others to take up the cause for human rights and social justice and we all have a part to play in this.
Whilst the Olympics games are supposed to be apolitical, most Olympics since Mexico 68 have had a political element to them. In 1972 there was the Munich massacre; 76 had the boycotts by African countries; in 1980 and 84 the Cold War superpowers played tit for tat; in 1996 there were bombings in the Olympic Park; and in 2008 there were the human rights issues in China. It is clear that political expression has no bounds.
With only two weeks away from London 2012, we eagerly await the pinnacle of sporting excellence to begin. However Dr Smith, not only exemplified sporting excellence, but his actions, which resulted in death threats, have shown us that whatever platforms we have, we can all become beacons of change for our society.
Robert Austin and Alan Ssempebwa