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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Jordan Thompson, U.S. volleyball’s new weapon, took unique route to NCAA history

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It was about this time last year that Jordan Thompson first appeared on the radar of U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly. Since, Thompson emerged as the youngest starter, and arguably a star, for the national team.

She goes into what could be her final weekend of college volleyball as one of the most dominant athletes in any sport. And one of the most unique stories in NCAA history.

Thompson plays not for a Big Ten or Pac-12 powerhouse, but for Cincinnati, a school that, before she arrived, never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The unranked Bearcats upset second-ranked Pittsburgh in the second round last Saturday. They play Penn State, winner of six of the last 12 NCAA titles, in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

In 33 games this season, Thompson has registered a Division I-leading 768 kills, which is 143 more than the next most prolific attacker. That margin of 143 is the same number that separates No. 2 from No. 31.

Last season, she had 827 kills, which was 240 more than anybody else and a single-season record (by 112 kills) since NCAA match formats shifted from 30-point to 25-point sets in 2008.

She is a contender, if not a favorite, to be AVCA National Player of the Year. All of the previous winners dating to 1985 came from schools that reached at least one Final Four.

On Oct. 4, a UCF player’s face caught the wrong end of a Thompson attack. Cincinnati teammates watching from the bench dropped to the floor in astonishment.

Thompson tallied 50 kills in one match alone on Nov. 3, becoming the first D-I player to do so in 20 years.

That happened on Senior Day. Before that match, Thompson received a plaqued No. 23 jersey and flowers.

She posed for a photo standing with her husband, former Cincinnati offensive lineman Blake Yager, her mother, Mary, whose bribes helped Thompson develop into an attacker, and her father, 1990s Harlem Globetrotter Tyrone Doleman (and brother of Pro Football Hall of Famer Chris Doleman).

Mary has been most instrumental, raising Thompson as a single mom in Minnesota. Thompson, who is 6 feet, 4 inches now, was always tall for her age.

She played youth basketball against older girls and grew frustrated by the physical contact. Kneepads weren’t comfort enough. She decided to give volleyball a try in middle school.

“She was very timid,” Mary said of her daughter, who has since gotten 10 tattoos, including one of a hummingbird. “She would tell me she didn’t want to hurt anyone on the other side of the net. I told her I would give her a dollar for every time she would whack it. And I would give her $10 if she would actually hit someone on the other end of the court.”

It took a while, but Thompson was motivated by her love of horses. The payouts from her mom went toward a saddle and a bridal. A box with horse equipment remains in the family garage back home.

“She was trying to build up her supplies to be able to one day say to me, look, I’ve got a saddle, I’ve got all of my tack, I’ve got stuff to clean the hooves, can we get a horse now?” Mary said. 

After just two years of club volleyball, Thompson received her first Division-I scholarship offer. It came from Syracuse. Thompson was a high school sophomore.

“In the back of my head, I’m thinking, I’m never going to get another offer, so I better take this one,” she said.

Thompson was intent on Syracuse for a year before a coaching change led her to decommit. She wasn’t sure if many schools knew she had reopened her recruiting. A Minnesota club teammate had committed to Cincinnati and suggested Thompson take a visit.

The Bearcats went 3-29 the season before she committed.

“I said, Jordan, you can play D-I at Texas. You can go to Nebraska,” Mary said. “She was like, no, no, I want to play all four years. I actually want to get playing time, mom. She really struggled believing how good she could be.”

The biggest obstacle came junior year. In a preseason training session, Thompson collided with that Minnesota club teammate, Jade Tingelhoff, and tore the UCL in her dominant, right arm. She was in an armpit-to-wrist brace for two months post-Tommy John surgery, including three weeks with her arm locked in place.

She couldn’t brush her hair, had a hard time brushing her teeth and found it difficult showering and getting dressed.

She still went to every Bearcats game and traveled with the team. Cincinnati went from 22-10 her sophomore season to 13-19 that year without her on the court.

“It ended up being OK,” Tingelhoff said. “She came back that next season — I’m not kidding — 10 times as better than she was even the previous year.”

As a redshirt junior, Thompson and her 827 kills helped Cincinnati to a 26-8 record and its first NCAA Tournament win in seven years. She also caught the eye of Kiraly by the end of that 2018 season.

“She was one of the elite players in all of college volleyball,” he said. “Probably the only one who came from a conference other than the ones known for producing the most NCAA champions, like the Big Ten and the Pac-12.”

By last spring break, Thompson had become a favorite of U.S coaches at a camp to help select teams for summer international tournaments.

She had a one-on-one conversation with Kiraly, the only person to own Olympic indoor and beach gold medals. The legend told her she had potential to play at the Pan American Games. Later, he upped the praise to say she was ready for the top-level Nations League, a precursor to Olympic qualifying.

Thompson made her national team debut in May. By August, she came off the bench to help spur a comeback in a crucial Olympic qualifying match. The next day, she was in the starting lineup for the U.S.’ final Olympic qualifier, where the Americans clinched a Tokyo 2020 berth.

“I think a lot people don’t know she is still in college,” two-time U.S. Olympic outside hitter Jordan Larson said then. “She still has one more year left.”

Agents reached out, but Thompson had no intention of giving up her final year of NCAA eligibility. She wanted to make history at Cincinnati. That was secured with the Sweet 16 berth.

With the new year, she will trade the Cincinnati red and black for Team USA colors. She will keep in mind what the U.S. coaching staff told the team during Olympic qualifying and what she called a dream summer.

“My big goal in life was I just wanted to be in the USA gym,” said Thompson, who is working on her master’s in criminal justice. “To hear that we’re all working towards this goal of trying to make this roster, and we are being looked as potential players to make that roster, my jaw dropped. To know that it’s even a remote possibility is mind-blowing.”

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Tahiti chosen for Olympic surfing competition at 2024 Paris Games

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Paris 2024 Olympic organizers want the surfing competition to be held in Tahiti, an island in French Polynesia that is about 9,800 miles from Paris.

It would break the record for the farthest Olympic medal competition to be held outside the host. In 1956, equestrian events were moved out of Melbourne due to quarantine laws and held five months earlier in Stockholm, some 9,700 miles away.

The Paris 2024 executive board approved the site Thursday — specifically, the village of Teahupo’o — and will propose it to the IOC. It beat out other applicants Biarritz, Lacanau, Les Landes and La Torche, all part of mainland France.

“If, ever, we have two alternatives, and where one alternative gives the athletes of a particular sport more closeness to the heart of the Games and allows them to enjoy the magic and the spirit of the Games better, then in the interest of the athletes, we prefer this solution,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in June when asked about Tahiti’s interest in hosting surfing.

Surfing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games but is not on the permanent Olympic program. Surfing was among sports added to the Paris 2024 program in June and could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

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