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Olympic legend Tommie Smith comes to Paris to share stories of triumph and revolt

By Paul Myers - RFI
Sports News  Paul Myers/RFI
TUE, 11 JUN 2024 LISTEN
© Paul Myers/RFI

Such is the aura of the 1968 Olympic 200 metres gold medallist Tommie Smith that sports historians with multiple degrees melt in his presence and even grown women stand up and cry out for a picture with him because it's their birthday.

Blondine Aglossi rose from her slumbers at 5am to set off from Nemours just outside Paris on Tuesday morning to attend the 40-minute talk the 80-year-old was scheduled to give at the Musée de la Porte Dorée in eastern Paris about the gesture he made with fellow American John Carlos and the Australian Peter Norman on the podium after the 200 metres Olympic final in Mexico City in 1968.

Just before the standing ovation in the museum's main auditorium got into full reverential accolade, Aglossi screamed out, "It's my 60th birthday today, can I have a picture?"

Minutes later amid a whirl of selfies, gushing compliments and unabashed adoration, Smith decked out in a light grey suit and mauve polo neck, charmingly obliged.

"I suddenly thought: 'It's my birthday," said Aglossi 15 minutes or so after her surge of spontaneity. "I have a legend, someone I've always admired, without really knowing him, like everyone else.

"But now I'm thinking I need a photo with him. It's a magical day today because he's here. 

"I'm thinking it's going to be my birthday present and it's a wonderful present, don't you think?"

Aglossi was four-years-old when on 16 October 1968 Smith and Carlos were catapulted into notoriety for raising their black-gloved fists.

Both athletes wore black socks and no shoes on the podium to represent African-American poverty.

Norman participated in the protest by wearing an badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

"Peter Norman was one of the greatest persons that I've ever met," Smith said.

"This is one of the most extraordinary stories of the whole contest. How did this white guy get a button developed by the Olympic Project for Human Rights Committee to wear that button?

"I talked to him before the race and, of course, after the race. And what he said to me was that he acknowledged the fact that he agreed with human rights.

"Peter Norman didn't back Tommie Smith and John Carlos," said Smith. "Let me repeat that. Peter Norman did not back us. He was a part of the belief in human rights.

"Folks, this wasn't a black move. It was black athletes making that move. But it was a human move. It was the Olympic Project for Human Rights, not the project for Black Panthers rights, or Mexican liberation or Indian sacrifices. This was human, which was all.

"When I raised that fist and bowed my head, it was a prayer that I prayed that all nations know it is the Lord's Prayer. This is a serious moment on the victory stand, folks, done by a 23-year-old athlete."

Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic committee, which organises the Games, branded the gestures "a domestic political statement" which were inappropriate for the Games.

Ban

He ordered the suspension of Smith and Carlos from the US team and banned them from the Olympic Village. When the US Olympic Committee refused, Brundage threatened to sanction the entire US track team. The athletes were finished.

"But what he [Brundage] didn't know and what the world didn't know was that I had an education to be a teacher and I was going toward that direction," Smith recounted drily.

"All he did was help me to make a quick decision. My intentions were to run track and teach school at the same time. I had to train to compete and go to college to get my teaching credentials So I had a double life."

Smith went on to teach sociology and was also a sports coach.

The wrath visited upon him at the 1968 Games explains the latter-day paens to the bravery which, Smith explained, came out of segregation and the legacy of the slave trade.

"I was an athlete especially in competition. I went to college for an education to get out of the cotton fields and the plantations that I worked on as a child.

"I went to Mexico City to win the race, not to necessarily make a statement," Smith added.

He told the hushed audience that because of his civil rights activism, he had been thinking about how the racism in the United States could be highlighted.

"It was talked about between me and John Carlos only moments before the race, he recalled. "It wasn't something decided months before ... only that we had to win the race to make a statement. What statement? I really didn't know.

"As for the black gloves, I didn't know what I was going to do with them," said Smith. "But I did know that they could be useful in what I needed to say."

The iconic picture emerged from thinking as quick as their feet in the bowels of the Olympic stadium amid the testosterone-fuelled ecstasy of success and fear over failing to seize a fleeting moment.

Looking at the picture epitmosing sporting achievement and dignified rebellion, Smith smiled.

"John said he forgot his gloves ... my glove, as you can see, was on the right hand. John's was on his left ... the gloves belong to me."

So are legends born.

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