Tommie Smith: The man behind the image


Like many of you I’d never met Dr Tommie Smith before. I knew that iconic image but not the man behind it. For three days I had the privilege of learning more about that historic event, but even more importantly about the man. A memory that will last a very long time.

I picked up Tommie and his manager wife Delois from Heathrow airport. It was raining. ‘Oh man this beautiful weather’, the six foot, five inches tall man said as we walked out the airport. ‘We’ve just come from California, via Atlanta and in both places they were hot’.

I’d arranged for a driver to pick us up. A young African driver turned up late but apologised profusely blaming the M4 emergency road works.

We all relaxed into polite conversation about the weather, about the forth-coming Olympic Games, and about the events we had arranged. Our driver turned to me and whispered, ‘Who is this guy, is he important? ‘This is the 200 metre gold medallist in the 1968 Olympic games; Tommie Smith’. ‘Mmm’ the driver responded, ‘I was too young. I don’t remember any of that’. ‘But you might recall the image of the two athletes raising their fist in a Black power salute’ I added. The car nearly screeched to halt throwing everyone forward. ‘That’s the guy in my car? My brother, Black power salute man. My God.’

When we arrived at the hotel the driver almost forgot about his money so keen was he to have his picture taken with Tommie Smith. ‘Thank you sir, you’ve made my day’.

This was to be a theme throughout his visit. Tommie Smith, a reluctant hero, had literally touched thousands, probably millions of people’s hearts. Every story was slightly different but the effect was the same.

What I wasn’t aware of until speaking to him was that Smith wasn’t a man born to speak up for millions. He wasn’t a militant; in fact he was pretty conservative young man. Born into a family of 12, with older sisters, all of whom would speak for the shy boy and later shy young man. As a teenager he joined the army cadets, an association anything but radical. There was no sign that Smith would radically shake up the world.

Although the African American Athletes wanted to make a protest against, racism and oppression at  the Mexico games they could not collectively agree on what to do. So it was left for each athlete to do their own thing. Smith say’s the American team, and particularly African Americans were wining everything but no one took a stand.

Then came their final. This race was 44 years ago, but Tommie remembers it  as if it were yesterday. I sat next to him during a screening at the University of Westminster. I couldn’t believe what I witnessed. I watched this great man run every tenth of second of that race on the edge of his seat as though he wasn’t sure how it was going to end. I asked him afterwards, ‘Do people forget how remarkable that race was? ‘ I guess so’, he replied, but I don’t’.

For me, he said, ‘It’s a metaphor for life. A beginning, middle and end’. ‘What do you mean? I enquired. ‘Well the start of race is like your birth, for me it was slow, in the middle is where you live, and at the end is where you die’. And it was the middle in which Tommie Smith almost had an out of body experience. Coming off bend he was way behind the powerful John Carlos, who had beaten him on a number of occasions, but on this day when he passed Carlos it was as though he had another gear. Although he ran an astonishing 19.78 seconds to win the final, ten metres before the line Smith slows up to celebrate. ‘I forgot about the time’, he said, ‘I was just happy I’d won the race. I guess though I could have shaved another two tenths of the world record had I kept running.

It’s now well documented about the short time Carlos and Smith had to decide what they would do. They both knew they would feel the wrath of the authorities but still went ahead. They didn’t know however that their country would hound them for a generation. During that university debate, a young student asks Smith , ‘with what you know now, would you do it all again’? Smith takes a deep breath, collects his thoughts, and says ‘yes, for sure I’d do it all again’. Then with a humorous smile he says but next time I’d keep the gloves. Those gloves must be worth a damn fortune right now’.

Later that day he went on to retell the initial disappointment his beloved mother and father had. ‘My daddy, who was my greatest hero, asked me when I returned, ‘son I hear you done some stupid things down there in Mexico. What do you have to say for yourself? Tommie said, ‘My Daddy was a hard working field man. Loved his children but never shown too much emotion and definitely not to me. My folks never saw my race and what occurred afterwards. I told my him, Daddy,- first time in my 24 years that I looked my father in eyes, you just didn’t do that to your father or white folk, -I would never do anything that you would be ashamed of. My father reached out his hand, and we shook hands, and before a tear drop could fully well up in his eye, he made his excuses and went back to work in field. I left Atlanta a boy and came back in my father’s eyes as a man.’

The second day of his visit we had a dinner with a few friends including the former Spurs player Garth Crooks. Garth said very little all evening and then nearing the end told the small group, ‘I, like a number of Black parents, have been fortunate to have the choice to send my children to private education. We’re not militant in my house but we have spoken about important moments in Black history and this for my family is one of them. My son went to a privileged, nearly all white school, and yet on the day of his graduation when he stood for the group photograph that would in many ways define his education what does my child do, bow his head and raise his fist.’ . Tommie Smith’s big right hand slapped the table then covered his emotional mouth. It seemed all too much for him that his 68 gesture should instil Black pride in a young man some 40 years later and thousands of miles away.

For me that moment encapsulated both the power and the humility of Tommie Smith. With racism on the rise and Black footballers in disarray, how we could do with a Black British Tommie Smith right now.

Simon Woolley

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Congratulations to you Simon and the OBV team in getting the truly courageous icon that is Tommie Smith over here at this time. Warmest regards Johnny