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Tommie Smith: What You Probably Didn’t Know About His 1968 Fist of Protest

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Do politics and sports go together? For some people, athletes should use their platforms to speak out on societal issues, while others feel, they should focus on their sport and keep their opinions to themselves. Tommie Smith wasn’t one to keep his opinions to himself as he raised his fist at the 1968 Olympics, to highlight racial inequality. However, this impacted his career negatively. Here’s how.

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How Tommie Smith’s Sporting Journey Begun 

Tommie Smith talking about his protest. Video Credit: CBS Evening News

Tommie Smith was born in Texas. As a child, he suffered from pneumonia but still excelled in sports. At school, he was the best track & field athlete. At the California State Meet, he won the 440 yards. As a result, Smith attended the San Jose State University on scholarship.

While at the university, Smith broke a couple of records in the 200m straight (19.5 seconds). He then set another record in the 200m and the 200 yards. He went on and collect more victories and made the 1968 Olympic team.

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1968 Olympic Protest

The story of the 1968 Olympic Protest. Video Credit: Vox

The runner entered the Summer Games with not only an agenda to compete but also to push for reforms. Even before the competition began, he called for a total boycott unless: 

  • South Africa was banned from the games due to the apartheid regime.
  • The president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stepped down.
  • African-American coaches get a chance to work in the game. 
  • Muhammad Ali got his title back. 

However, the games continued, but South Africa wasn’t allowed to compete. As a result, Tommie Smith staged his protest differently. He was a member of the Olympic Project for Human Rights and decided to have the badge of the organization on his attire.

After his victory in the 200m finals, he stood on the podium wearing black socks without shoes and raised his fist to symbolize the poverty faced by African Americans. 

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Impact of Protest

The IOC brands itself as an apolitical organization. For this reason, its president Avery Brundage deemed Smith’s protest political and interfering in the spirit of the game. He was suspended from the US team, a decision the team fought against unsuccessfully. 

The IOC threatened to ban the entire US track & field team if they didn’t suspend Smith, and they released him. Apart from their careers, Tommie Smith received death threats for standing up to the IOC. It also affected their economic potential. 

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Beyond Sports

Smith joined the Los Angeles Rams in the National Football League. He played for three seasons and after that, he taught sociology and coached track & field athletes at Oberlin College. He also received numerous awards and recognitions like the Sportsman of the Millenium Award. 

Tommie Smith has also written books on his athletics experience:

He’s also the subject of the documentary 1999 HBO documentary Fists of Freedom: The Story of the ’68 Summer Games.

When it comes to sports activism, Tommie Smith will always be a reference point. Despite some fans stating that they want politics out of sport, it’s impossible to separate the two. It’s also important for those who have a wider reach to speak against ill-treatment and lend their voice to the betterment of humanity and that’s what Smith did.  

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