Tommie Smith, John Carlos remember Olympic protest on 50th anniversary

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Tommie Smith prefers to call the iconic Olympic moment he shared — the often-labeled black power salute — by another name.

“It went further than black power,” Smith told NBC Sports last year. “I’d rather call it people power.”

Oct. 16 marks the 50th anniversary of the Mexico City Olympic 200m final, won by Smith with U.S. teammate John Carlos earning bronze. Later that night, Smith and Carlos each thrust one, black-gloved first atop the medal stand as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played.

NBC Sports and Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA air programs marking the 50th anniversary of the Mexico City Games this month. It starts Thursday with the premiere of “Bring the Fire: A Conversation with John Carlos” and the documentary “1968” on Olympic Channel at 8 p.m. ET.

The former is a conversation between NBC Sports track and field analyst Ato Boldon and Carlos. The latter is the film that premiered during the PyeongChang Olympics, narrated by Serena Williams, on how the Mexico City Games intersected sports and politics.

“1968” reairs on Olympic Channel on Oct. 16 at 5:30 p.m. ET. Then on Oct. 31, a two-hour special, “1968: The Legacy of the Mexico City Games,” premieres on NBCSN. The special will include highlights from an Oct. 18 LA84 Foundation Summit panel discussion in Los Angeles. More information is here from NBC Sports PR.

Smith, the seventh of 12 children who grew up working the San Joaquin Valley cotton and grape fields, came to Mexico City as the world-record holder. Carlos, who joined Smith at San Jose State the previous school year, calls Smith independent and peculiar.

But Carlos, a fiery Harlem native described by Smith as “a bee in a flock of flies,” was the favorite.

Carlos beat Smith at the second of two Olympic Trials in a world-record time later disallowed because Carlos’ Pumas were not sanctioned. Then Smith pulled a groin muscle a few strides after winning his 200m semifinal in Mexico City. The final would be later that night.

“Four steps after the [semifinal], I had a devastating pain … and I had thought I had been shot,” Smith said. “[I] looked down, and there was no blood.”

Carlos didn’t believe it.

“Fake. Artificial,” Carlos said, laughing, in an NBC Sports interview last year. “He didn’t fool me in the least bit.”

Up to that point, the podium gesture had not been discussed. Carlos said that he approached Smith just before the final and, based on their conversation, decided to throw the race.

“I said, ‘Tommie, I’m disenchanted about the fact that the Olympic Games [boycott] was called off. I want to make a statement. What’s your take on that?'” Carlos said. “[Smith] said, ‘I’m with you.’ When [Smith] said, ‘I’m with you,’ instantaneously my brain said, ‘He can have the medal.'”

Then Carlos spoke with his coach, Bud Winter.

“I said, ‘Bud, you know them races don’t mean nothing to me. Them medals don’t mean nothing to me. And it mean everything to him,'” Carlos said. “You know what he told me? He didn’t tell me, ‘Give the race to Tommie.’ He said,  ‘John, you’ve always done what you felt was the right thing to do. You gonna do the right thing whatever way you decide.'”

Though Carlos led the final coming off the turn — Smith said he held back on the curve to protect his groin — he dropped to third in the second half of the race on the straight. Carlos said he “pulled back.”

“If you really check it out, you’ll see that I’m not running down that straightaway for the last 80 yards,” Carlos said.

Smith has disputed that.

“John says he let me win,” he said, according to Sports Illustrated. “Threw the race. You cannot say that. When you don’t win, you congratulate the winner for trying his best. I don’t believe Carlos means it. I really don’t.”

Smith and Carlos are in more agreement about what happened next.

“After the race, the first and foremost objective in my mind is, ‘Now we can get busy. Let’s get it on,'” Carlos said. “Let’s do what I came here to do. Everybody got what they wanted. Everybody got their medals and so forth. And I said, ‘Now I get a chance to feel good about why I’m here at these Games.’ And we went in the tunnel.”

Australian Peter Norman, the silver medalist, was with them. Norman saw the Americans planning and inquired. Carlos said he asked Norman if he wanted to wear the same Olympic Project for Human Rights button that he and Smith would put on their jackets.

“When I asked him, ‘Did he believe in human rights?’ the first thing he told me, he said, ‘John, my mom and dad are Salvation Army workers all my life,'” Carlos said.

Norman accepted a button. The Olympic Project for Human Rights reflected Smith’s belief that the salute was about people power.

“To deal with human issues, issues of people that was being oppressed around the world,” Carlos said. “People that had no medical care around the world. People that had no employment around the world. People that was being deprived of opportunities to go to college around the world.”

Carlos and Smith marched to the podium with head-to-toe statements, recalled by the men last year.

“It was my cry for freedom,” Smith said. “The racist tendencies of America had to be shown in some fact. And this was the athletes’ platform to show the need to continue.”

Smith wore a scarf for black pride. Carlos’ black shirt, covering his USA uniform, was “to illustrate my shame of America,” Carlos said. The beads around Carlos’ neck: “It was about love first of all. But then foremost it was about the lynchings that had taken place throughout the South for so many years,” he said.

Carlos also unzipped his jacket.

“I thought about my mother, and my father, and all the people that I saw, the common working folk that I saw in this city right here in New York,” Carlos said. “And I could not go on that victory stand and be zipped up like I’m a, you know, gold collar guy.”

Both wore black socks, like other athletes on the U.S. track team. Then there were the shoes that they didn’t wear. “To illustrate poverty,” Carlos said. “You got people in the South that’s going 20 miles to and 20 miles from to get to school, have no shoes on.”

As “The Star-Spangled Banner” began, the Americans raised black-gloved fists with authority. Smith’s wife provided them. Smith wore the right glove; Carlos the left.

“We wanted to put the gloves on to let ’em know that, yes, we’re here representing America. We’re here representing the Olympics,” Carlos said. “But we’re here more folks representing black people and black pride.”

As the anthem finished, crowd reaction replaced the sound of music.

“The boos were about as profound as the silence was when we raised our fists and bowed our heads in prayer,” Smith said.

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40 years ago today: Jimmy Carter lays plan for Olympic boycott

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On Jan. 20, 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter said he would not support sending a U.S. team to the Moscow Olympics later that summer if the Soviet Union did not withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

Carter detailed his stance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” airing that Sunday. A transcript:

Bill Monroe: Assuming the Soviets do not pull out of Afghanistan any time soon, do you favor the U.S. participating in the Moscow Olympics, and if not, what are the alternatives?

Carter: No. Neither I nor the American people would support the sending of an American team to Moscow with Soviet invasion troops in Afghanistan. I’ve sent a message today to the United States Olympic Committee spelling out my own position that unless the Soviets withdraw their troops within a month from Afghanistan that the Olympic Games be moved from Moscow to alternate site or multiple sites or postponed or canceled. If the Soviets do not withdraw their troops immediately from Afghanistan — within a month — I would not support the sending of an American team to the Olympics. It’s very important for the world to realize how serious a threat the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan is. I do not want to inject politics into the Olympics, and I would personally favor the establishment of a permanent Olympic site for both the Summer and the Winter Games. In my opinion, the most appropriate permanent site for the Summer Games would be Greece. This will be my own position, and I have asked the U.S. Olympic Committee to take this position to the International Olympic Committee, and I would hope that as many nations as possible would support this basic position. One hundred and four nations voted against the Soviet invasion and called for their immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan in the United Nations, and I would hope as many of those as possible would support the position I’ve just outlined to you.

Monroe: Mr. President, if a substantial number of nations does not support the U.S. position, would not that just put the U.S. in an isolated position without doing much damage to the Soviet Union?

Carter: Regardless of what other nations might do, I would not favor the sending of an American Olympic team to Moscow while the Soviet invasion troops are in Afghanistan.

Three days later, Carter said in his State of the Union address, “I have notified the Olympic Committee that with Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow.”

The Soviets did not withdraw troops.

Though Carter did not have the authority to order a boycott, the U.S. Olympic Committee did decide on April 12 not to send a team.

The U.S. was among more than 60 nations that were invited to the Moscow Games and did not participate (for various reasons). Other notable absences included Canada, West Germany, Japan and China.

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With four former champions in the mix, who can claim U.S. Championships pairs’ title?

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There have been four different U.S. pairs’ champions in the past four years. All four of those teams are in the field at this week’s U.S. Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. With that in mind, who could get the nod to compete at the world championships in March?

The U.S. has two spots to fill, thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who finished ninth at last year’s worlds.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had the best fall of any U.S. pair, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix Series. Denney and Frazier finished with silver medals at last year’s national championships, too. The team has previous experience at the world championships (2015: 12th; 2017: 20th).

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title last year after a season that was nearly sidelined by Cain-Gribble’s concussion in December 2018. As the solo U.S. representatives at the world championships, they succeeded in earning back two world berths for 2020.

This season, they won two B-level competitions and finished fourth and fifth at their Grand Prix assignments. LeDuc said last week that despite their win at Golden Spin in December, “there was a little bit of room for improvement, which is exactly what we want from a competition going into nationals.”

“We feel like we’ve improved a lot as far as what we’re able to take on mentally because we know that this is going to be an intense week,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re prepared for that. We’ve never had to do this before, where we’re coming in and we’re already the reigning champions. We’ve never come in with that title before. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about it and what that feeling is, but overall their main thing was, ‘Be prepared. Prepare yourself beyond what you can even imagine. When you get there, just go on autopilot and do your thing.’”

PyeongChang Olympic team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim haven’t been in top form since the Games. Later in 2018, they split from short-lived coach Aljona Savchenko in Germany and moved to California.

They finished an all-time low of seventh at last year’s nationals and were not assigned to any events later in the season. In their off-season, Chris underwent wrist surgery. The couple also added Rafael Arutunian to their coaching team to address their jumping abilities. Their season consisted of a silver medal at a B-level competition, followed by two Grand Prix assignments where they finished fourth and seventh.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said after finishing fourth at Skate Canada this fall. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

The last time the Knierims competed at a nationals in Greensboro, in 2015, they won the first of their two titles. That year, they notched their highest placement (seventh) across five total trips to the world championships.

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea won their national title in 2016 and were also sent on their only trip to the world championships where they finished 13th. In 2017, Kayne underwent knee surgery, but they returned to the national podium in 2018 and won silver. Last year, they finished fourth after a disastrous free skate.

This season, they collected a silver medals and a fourth place finish at two B-level competitions as well as a pair of sixth-place finishes on the Grand Prix.

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As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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