Noah Lyles showed his support for the Black Lives Matter movement last year by attending marches, posting on social media and by releasing a song, “A Black Life.” The world champion sprinter felt compelled to do more on the track over the last 10 months.
Since August, Lyles has worn a fingerless black glove at some meets. He raised a gloved fist at least once on the start line in an homage to Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
Lyles is a headliner at the U.S. Olympic Trials that start Friday in Eugene, Oregon. His first race is a 100m preliminary heat on Saturday (full broadcast schedule here).
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee is allowing racial and social justice demonstrations, including raising a fist on a podium or start line, at Trials.
“There’s a feeling of, if you are silent, you are not helping and you never feel like you can do enough,” Lyles told NBC Sports earlier this year. “That’s the worst feeling that, even when you are doing stuff, you always feel like you’re never doing enough because you’re not seeing change. That’s the eating away part.”
He began thinking about what he could do on the track last summer, when meets started up again during the pandemic.
Before traveling to Europe for three August races, Lyles went for a five-minute drive to his local Dick’s Sporting Goods in Central Florida.
He walked into the store and to the golf section. He didn’t like the selection. So he shifted to the weightlifting apparel area. That’s where he saw a pair of black, finger-less gloves.
“This is the one I want,” he recalled in February. “Of course, it didn’t fit, and I had to go back and [get] another one, but, eh, the moment was there.”
Lyles later packed at least one of the gloves for his flight to a Diamond League stop in Monaco that airs globally.
“I just felt that since we didn’t have a lot of track meets to go to, and a lot of people will be watching this one, this was the one to do it at,” he said.
On the day of the meet, Lyles shared on Twitter the iconic image of Smith and Carlos raising black-gloved fists on the 200m medal stand at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
He also posted an Instagram Story image of his race-day socks — plain, dark colored. It marked a change for Lyles. Inside his Adidas spikes, he usually wore flashy socks, from designs of Sonic the Hedgehog and Speed Racer to Dunder Mifflin.
In 1968, Smith and Carlos wore black socks without shoes on the podium to signify endemic poverty in the U.S. at the time.
Three hours after the social media posts, a camera panned to Lyles for his pre-race introduction before the 200m in Monaco. Lyles bowed his head and slowly raised his right arm. His right hand was in a fist, covered by one of those black gloves that he bought from the weightlifting section.
“You know where you’ve seen this before,” NBC Sports analyst Ato Boldon said on the broadcast. “That is the pose that was struck by Tommie Smith in the front and then John Carlos behind him 52 years ago.”
Lyles won comfortably in 19.76 seconds in a one-two with younger brother Josephus, who is also entered at Olympic Trials.
“As athletes it’s hard to show that you love your country and also say that change is needed,” was later posted on Lyles’ Instagram, along with hashtags including #blacklivesmatter. “This is my way of saying this country is great but it can be better.”
Smith, now 77 years old and based in Georgia, was notified of Lyles’ moment by his “legacy team” that tracks any time a fist is used in such a way.
“I’ve seen [Lyles] run. I’ve seen him come out of the blocks. I saw him [standing] with his fist in the air,” Smith said in March. “I knew there was a reason for that … but I haven’t talked to him about the verbal explanation of why he did it. People use that fist for many different things, but I know because of athletics, which is track and field, and on the victory stand, it must be because of me in 1968, but I have not sat down with the young man and talked with him about the need for him to keep doing something which is righteous in his own way to propel the need for equality.”
Carlos, now 76, also saw the Monaco video.
“It seemed like it was a personal message to me and Dr. Smith to say, yes, I remember, and I understand,” Carlos said in March, adding that he had not spoken with Lyles about it.
The three 200m sprinters shared a stage in 2018. Smith and Carlos presented Lyles with the Jesse Owens Award as the U.S. male track and field athlete of the year.
“If he would give you and I a two-day head start, I think we could beat him in the 200m,” Carlos joked to Smith that night. “We’ve got to lean,” Smith replied.
Lyles’ personal best is 19.50 seconds, second on the U.S. all-time list behind Michael Johnson. Smith’s best was 19.83 and Carlos’ 19.92. They were the only American men to break 20 seconds until Carl Lewis came along in the 1980s.
“Wish [Lyles] all the luck in the world,” Carlos said in March. “Hope that he can take it to the highest level, get as much as you can get out of the sport because obviously he’s giving it his all to the sport.”
Lyles wasn’t asked in detail about the black-gloved fist on that day in Monaco, where there was limited media. He reflected on it earlier this year.
“It was one of those things where it’s like I needed to do this,” he said. “I felt like there was not a lot of things that I could do.
“When John Carlos and Tommie Smith put up that fist … they were basically shunned.”
Smith and Carlos were sent home before the end of the Mexico City Games for what was deemed an against-the-rules protest.
“Now that we’re able to go out there and say, yes, we love our country but we still are suffering, I just felt that I had to go out there and say something,” Lyles continued. “I felt like I couldn’t have all this influence and not use that to something I felt passionate about.”
The IOC executive board recently approved recommendations from its athletes’ commission regarding athlete demonstrations at the Olympics based on a global athlete survey. While increased opportunities for athlete expression are coming, one rule that remains in place is one disallowing certain Olympic athlete demonstrations, including hand gestures and kneeling, on medal podiums, in the field of play and at Opening and Closing Ceremonies.
Potential rule breaches are handled on a case-by-case basis. The IOC’s legal affairs commission is expected to come up with a range of possible sanctions “so that everyone knows going into a Games where and what everyone can and cannot do,” Kirsty Coventry, chair of the athletes’ commission, said in April.
Lyles was sad but not surprised that the rule is, for the most part, staying in place for now.
“I was talking to somebody recently, and they were saying just because you can’t do an action at that specific time doesn’t mean that people don’t know that you’re an activist,” he said earlier this spring. “You see LeBron James. Everybody knows he’s a huge supporter for Black Lives Matter, but he’s not always throwing on a Black Lives Matter T-shirt everywhere he goes.”
When Lyles released “A Black Life” last July, he said he was always thinking of how he can help spread the word of injustice. He is a man of artistic talents — also dancing and painting. In the last 10 months, Lyles stood on his most well-known canvas, a 400-meter oval track, to further a message.
“A lot of people basically think that as an athlete, you should just be an athlete. Just shut up and dribble. Shut up and run,” he said. “[Raising a black-gloved fist] was just one way that I felt that I could show that, yes, I am an American track and field runner, but I am also a Black man who is dealing with and scared of the same things that every Black human being in America is dealing with.”
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