Lee Evans, 1968 Olympic 400m champion who protested racism, dies at 74

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Lee Evans, the 1968 Olympic 400m champion and human rights activist, has died at age 74, according to USA Track and Field.

Evans suffered a stroke last week in Nigeria and was unconscious in a hospital there as of Sunday, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

Evans was 21 when he won the 400m at the Mexico City Games in 43.86 seconds, the first time somebody broke 44 in the event.

“I was so tired, I knew I did something I’ve never done before,” Evans told NBC Sports for the film “1968” on those Olympics. “I wasn’t sure I won. Nobody told me I won, so they said, ‘Lee, you son of a gun.’ I said, ‘Who won? Who won?'”

He later anchored the U.S. 4x400m to gold in a world record. Both records stood for two decades.

Evans ran collegiately for San Jose State — “Speed City” — with Tommie Smith and John Carlos, 1968 Olympic teammates who took gold and bronze, respectively, in the 200m in Mexico City.

Evans was a founding member of the Olympic Project for Human Rights and one of the athletes to fight for racial justice before and during those Games.

He wanted to withdraw from the 400m final after Smith and Carlos were kicked out of the Olympics after raising black-gloved fists on the medal stand. But Smith and Carlos convinced Evans to run, according to Olympedia.org.

Evans said an official warned the U.S. 400m runners before the final not do anything similar to Smith and Carlos. The official was worried the U.S. team would get kicked out of the Games.

Evans then led a U.S. medals sweep of the 400m with Larry James and Ron Freeman. All three wore black berets in support of the Black Panther Party for the victory ceremony. They removed them for the anthem, a decision Evans said was made before the Olympics given they still had the 4x400m relay to run.

“After what Tommie and John did, there was a lot of commotion,” Evans said in 2017. “We had meetings, and yelling, but it turns out, we stuck to our guns.”

Evans later coached and directed track and field programs for decades internationally.