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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