Finsbury Park dance and sports coach Everett Jervis with Tommie Smith at the Camden Centre
Published: 16 August, 2012
by JOHN GULLIVER
I ROSE from my sofa and cheered on Mo Farah as he won the 5,000-metre race.
I was cheering him as a black Briton who had come to these shores from Somalia as a child, and had, at that moment on Saturday evening, become a symbol of an integrated Britain, far more than black football heroes or boxing champions whose appeal is narrower.
All of this, I believe, is part of the tapestry of real patriotism.
We may legislate all we can, and sermonise in the press, TV and social media, but when Mo became a British hero on Saturday that did more for a bolder, better and fairer Britain than anything else.
By achieving the double Mo will be rightly lionised by society and able to command a golden income for the years ahead. Yet four hours before he ran I had met another black gold medallist, a world famous American runner, whose life spiralled downwards into a disaster within days of being hailed an Olympic hero 44 years ago.
He had infuriated the International Olympic Committee – and was forced to leave the Olympic village.
Then he, and a fellow medallist, were savagely attacked in the press for being “anti-American”.
What were their crimes? They had stood on the podium in black socks, raised their gloved hands and given a defiant salute for equal rights for black Americans at the Mexico Olympics in 1968.
These two athletes – Tommie Smith and John Carlos – had committed their unpardonable crime after winning medals in the 200-metre race – Smith won gold, Carlos bronze.
Their heads bowed, their eyes closed, what was going through their minds at that historic moment on the podium? A mixture of thoughts ran through Smith’s mind – prayers, because he was a religious man from a poor share-cropping family, mingled with fears of being shot by a racist sniper in the stands, this shared by Carlos.
At that time the US was being convulsed by racial turmoil. Only a few months before the games Dr Martin Luther King had been assassinated.
Extraordinarily enough the IOC never forgave them. Even in the past fortnight, while the IOC celebrated the successful London games, its leading members continued to treat Smith and Carlos as untouchable lepers. Their names have effectively been expunged from their Hall of Fame.
Smith is an amiable 6ft 5ins giant of a man, now 68, who spoke at the Camden Centre on Saturday after the showing of a very good documentary, Return to Mexico – narrated by Keifer Sutherland – and a Q and A session about the famous event in Mexico that became a cause celebre in world sport and politics.
After Smith and Carlos left the Olympic village – their cases were packed and placed outside their door – they returned to a life of despair and disgrace in the US.
They had hoped – hopes shared by any Olympic medallist – that the doors had been opened to a comfortable career playing and coaching track teams.
Now they had dishonoured the US flag!
Smith slipped back eventually into a normal life, becoming a teacher in sociology and an athletics coach, but Carlos was forced to take low-paid manual jobs for years. It took more than 25 years before their old college, where they trained for the Olympics, honoured them with a statue of the famous “raised fist” moment.
Today, both of them write and lecture about that day in Mexico.
Smith has set up a foundation for disadvantaged young people in the US – and at the end of the meeting, organised by Force4Change, an auction for his group raised several thousand pounds.
• Recommended books: Silent Gesture – the autobiography of Tommie Smith, Temple University Press, Philadelphia; The John Carlos Story, Haymarket Books, Chicago.
• Force4Change, 356 Holloway Road, N7 – www.voice4change-england.co.uk