Tommie Smith (born June 6, 1944) is an African American former track & field athlete and wide receiver in the American Football League. At the 1968 Summer Olympics, Smith won the 200-meter dash finals in 19.83 seconds – the first time the 20 second barrier was broken. His Black Power salute with John Carlos atop the medal podium caused controversy at the time as it was seen as politicizing the Olympic Games. It remains a symbolic moment in the history of the African-American Civil Rights Movement.
While attending Lemoore High School, Smith showed great potential, setting most of the school’s track records, many of which remain. He won the 440 yard dash in the 1963 CIF California State Meet. His achievements won him a scholarship to San Jose State. On May 7, 1966, Smith set a world best of 19.5 seconds in the 200 meters and 220 yards in 1966, running on a straight cinder track at San Jose State. That “world best” for 200 metres was finally beaten by Tyson Gay on May 16, 2010, just over 44 years later., though Smith still holds the best for the slightly longer 220 yard event. Since the IAAF has abandoned ratifying records for the event, Smith will retain the official record for the straightaway 200 metres/220 yards in perpetuity. Smith won the national collegiate 220-yard (201.17 m) title in 1967 before adding the AAU furlong (201.17m) crown as well. He traveled to Japan for the 1967 Summer Universiade and won the 200 m gold medal. He repeated as AAU 200 m champion in 1968 and made the Olympic team.
In the 1968 Olympic Games at Mexico City, on 16 October, he won the gold medal for the 200 m in a world record time 19.83 s. He and a teammate, John Carlos, who earned the bronze medal, gave a Black Power salute while receiving their medals. Silver medalist Peter Norman, a white Australian, donned a human rights badge on the podium in support of their protest. (See 1968 Olympics Black Power salute.)
Some people (particularly IOC president Avery Brundage) felt that a political statement had no place in the international forum of the Olympic Games. In an immediate response to their actions, Smith and Carlos were suspended from the U.S. team by Brundage and voluntarily moved from the Olympic Village. Brundage, who was president of the United States Olympic Committee in 1936, had made no objections against Nazi salutes during the Berlin Olympics. The Nazi salute, being a national salute at the time, was accepted in a competition of nations, while the athletes’ salute was not of a nation and so was considered unacceptable. People who opposed the protest said the actions disgraced all Americans. Supporters, on the other hand, praised the men for their bravery. The men’s gesture had lingering effects for all three athletes, the most serious of which were death threats against Smith, Carlos and their families.
During his career, Smith set seven individual world records and also was a member of several world-record relay teams at San Jose State, where he was coached by Lloyd (Bud) Winter. With personal records of 10.1 for 100 meters, 19.83 for 200 and 44.5 for the 400, Smith still ranks high on the world all-time lists. After graduating, Smith played professional football with the Cincinnati Bengals for three years.
After his track career, he became a member of the United States National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1978. In 1996, Smith was inducted into the California Black Sports Hall of Fame, and in 1999 he received that organization’s Sportsman of the Millennium Award. In 2000 – 2001 the County of Los Angeles and the State of Texas presented Smith with Commendation, Recognition and Proclamation Awards.
In 2010, Smith announced that he would sell the gold medal he won at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. He put his gold medal for the 200 meters and spikes up for auction. The bid starts at $250,000, and the sale is scheduled to close November 4, 2010.
For his life-long commitment to athletics, education, and human rights following his silent gesture of protest at the ’68 Olympics in Mexico City, Smith received the Courage of Conscience Award from The Peace Abbey in Sherborn, Massachusetts.
In 2005, a statue showing Smith and Carlos on the medal stand (but not Norman, whose silver medal position is vacant) was constructed by political artist Rigo 23 and dedicated on the campus of San Jose State University.
A mural of the photo taken with Smith on the podium at the 1968 Olympics with Carlos and Norman was painted on the brick wall of a residence in Newtown, New South Wales, Australia, titled “Three Proud People, Mexico, 1968”. The mural faces the train tracks linking Sydney city to the Western and Southern Suburbs, and is no longer visible by thousands of commuters every day. Smith, along with Carlos, was a pallbearer at Norman’s funeral in Melbourne in 2006.