Tommie Smith & John Carlos Took a Stand at the 1968 Olympics. See Them Now.
The track athletes used their platform—literally—to protest systemic racism.
One of the most enduring images from Olympic history is the photo from the 1968 Mexico City games in which Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists up to the sky while standing on the medal podium. Smith had just won the gold medal in the 200-meter sprint, while Carlos took the bronze. But rather than simply accepting their medals, Americans Smith and Carlos decided to make a statement against racist discrimination and abuses of human rights.
While the U.S. national anthem played, Smith and Carlos raised their fists, which were covered with black gloves, in a Black Power salute. They didn't wear shoes, which was meant to symbolize Black poverty, and Smith wore a scarf and Carlos wore beads around his neck to symbolize those who had been killed by lynching, according to History. Both men also wore Olympic Project for Human Rights badges. The organization was created by sociologist Harry Edwards as a way to protest racism in the U.S. and internationally while at the Olympics. Edwards worked at San José State University, which Carlos and Smith both attended. Meanwhile, the silver medal winner, Australian runner Peter Norman, was in support of Smith and Carlos' silent demonstration and also wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge during the ceremony.
Now, it's been 53 years since Smith and Carlos' famous moment. With a new Olympics starting up in a world that is changed but still facing many of the same issues they were protesting, let's check in on where Carlos and Smith are now.
Both men faced consequences for their protest.
Smith and Carlos were both suspended from the U.S. team and kicked out of the Olympic Village by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) because of their demonstration. Back in the U.S., they also faced backlash and received death threats. "One minute everything was sunny and happy, the next minute was chaos and crazy," Carlos told Smithsonian magazine in 2008. Smith said, "I had no job and no education, and I was married with a seven-month-old son."
But they didn't regret their actions. "I went up there as a dignified Black man and said: 'What's going on is wrong,'" Carlos told Smithsonian. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Smith said, "The most powerful spot in any of the ceremonies is on the victory stand. This was my thoughts back then. That was the only platform I had. What else could I do? For the other athlete, John Carlos, we chose this. Yes, we sacrificed. We ran hundreds of races to get there. It was our platform. And it wasn't illegal. The IOC has a different opinion, but the IOC doesn't run the society."
They both went on to short-lived football careers.
After their track and field days were over, both Carlos and Smith ended up making it onto NFL teams. Smith was a wide receiver for three seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. Carlos was with the Philadelphia Eagles for a year, but could not play due to a knee injury. He then played in the Canadian Football League for a year.
Smith became a college professor.
According to Smithsonian magazine, Smith went on to get a bachelor's degree in social science from San José State and a master's degree in sociology from the Goddard-Cambridge Graduate Program in Social Change. He taught sociology and health and coached track at Oberlin College, and then Santa Monica College. He also started the Tommie Smith Youth Initiative. Smith, now 77, is married to his third wife and has nine children and stepchildren.
Carlos also became a coach.
Carlos, now 76, became a counselor and a track and field coach at Palm Springs High School. He is married to his second wife and, according to the 2008 Smithsonian article, has four living children, after having lost a stepson in 1998. He also helped provide scholarships for young athletes with a gala in 2019. "The Carlos children are proud to come together to build further a legacy honoring not only their family patriarch but a living giant in the worlds of social justice and humanitarianism," reads a statement about the event on his website.
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They've received numerous accolades as the years have passed.
Both Carlos and Smith have been honored for their actions at the 1968 Olympics. In 2005, San José State built a statue depicting their famous Olympic moment. They received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2008 ESPYs. In 2019, they were inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame.
"It sends the message that maybe we had to go back in time and make some conscious decisions about whether we were right or wrong," Carlos told USA Today of the U.S. Olympic Committee's reexamination of the event. "They've come to the conclusion that, 'Hey man, we were wrong. We were off-base in terms of humanity relative to the human rights era.'"