On October 16, 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos sprinted for the line in the men’s 200m race at the Mexico City Olympics. Carlos led coming out of the turn, but Smith — his teammate at San Jose State University — passed him in the home stretch and won the gold. Australian Peter Norman nipped Carlos at the line for the silver medal.
These men aren’t remembered for how they reached the podium as much as for what they did once they stood on it. As The Star Spangled Banner played, Smith and Carlos each bowed their heads and raised a black-gloved fist — a gesture to draw attention to human rights, not just civil rights, wrote Smith in his book, Silent Gesture.
A 20-foot sculpture of Smith and Carlos in their iconic pose, created from ceramic tiles, was dedicated on the campus of San Jose State, 37 years to the day after the men took their stand. It stands on a quiet lawn near some of the university’s older buildings.
“It’s powerful,” a visitor from North Carolina said as I walked up to read the inscription.
“At the Mexico City 1968 Olympic Games, San Jose State University Student-Athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood for justice, dignity, equality, and peace,” reads the inscription, commemorated October 16, 2005.
The second step is empty but is engraved with “Fellow Athlete Australian Peter Norman stood here in solidarity. Take a stand.”
The lettering is almost worn away.
Next to the sculpture stands a wreath of flowers, with a small banner that says, “Remembering a Great Olympic Team.”
About 200 meters from this sculpture on San Jose State’s campus, 2008 U.S. Olympic team members are going through team processing en route to Beijing. They are picking up their credentials, getting fitted for uniforms and other apparel, listening to cultural briefings, and finishing other paperwork.
Over 500 American athletes will pass through San Jose State before August 8. I wonder how many know the role two of the university’s students played in those Games 40 years ago.
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This blog was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.