2014 Joe Shapiro Award Recipients

Tommie Smith & John Carlos

photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos

John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Olympic track and field medalists and Civil Rights advocates, are this year’s Joe Shapiro Award recipients. Smith won the gold medal and Carlos claimed the bronze in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City and their gestures on the medal stand became one of the most iconic – and controversial – moments in the history of the Olympics.

Smith and Carlos raised black-gloved fists and bowed their heads during the playing of the national anthem in a protest designed to bring attention to the treatment of African-American people in the country and to show solidarity with people fighting internationally for human rights.

They were both criticized for their actions at the time, but are now considered to be icons of the civil rights movement.

In 2005, a statue of Smith and Carlos was unveiled on the campus of San Jose State, where both were track and field student-athletes. The inscription on the statue reads: “Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood for justice, dignity, equality and peace. Hereby the university and associated students commemorate their legacy.”

Both men were outstanding athletes, even before college. Smith was a three-sport star at Lemoore High School, where he excelled in basketball, football and track and field. Smith set seven individual world records and was a member of several world-record relay teams while at San Jose State. He won national championships in the 220-yard dash in 1966 and 1967 and won AAU national titles in that event as well in 1967 and 1968. Smith was originally drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the ninth round of the 1967 National Football League draft, but ultimately signed to play for the American Football League’s Cincinnati Bengals.

Carlos was also a gifted high school athlete and earned a scholarship to East Texas State University, where his victories in the 100 and 200-meter dashes and as a member of the 4x100 relay team helped lead his team to a conference championship. After his first year, he enrolled at San Jose State, where he led the Spartans to a national title in 1969.

Both men were poised to make their marks in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics. Carlos stunned the track and field world when he upset Smith, who was the world record holder, at the U.S. Olympic Trials and the two Americans were heavy favorites heading into the Olympics.

The pair spoke in general terms before the Olympics about using the medal stand to make a statement. Ironically, it was Smith, the highest-rated sprinter in the world, who almost didn’t make it to the victory stand at all. He pulled a muscle just after crossing the finish line in his semifinal race and said later that he was deeply concerned about being able to win in the finals, which were held later that same day.

Smith, though, was able to surge past Carlos late in the race to set a new world record and claim the gold medal. Peter Norman of Australia edged Carlos to the tape to earn the silver. The medal ceremony was held about an hour later. Smith handed Carlos the left glove and kept the right one. Norman asked to participate and was given a patch of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a civil rights group of black athletes founded by Smith, San Jose State sociology professor Harry Edwards and others. Norman wore the patch during the medal ceremony.

On the first note of the national anthem, Smith’s right hand shot up and was quickly followed by the left hand of Carlos. The two raised their fists again as they walked out of the stadium. Smith and Carlos wore black socks and no shoes to the podium to protest poverty. Carlos also wore beads around his neck to protest lynching.

Two days later, Smith and Carlos were sent home by the U.S. Olympic Committee. Back home, they were heavily criticized and largely ostracized in the years after. There were death threats and hate mail and, later, isolation, unemployment and years of anguish.

Over time, their activism earned them acclaim with athletic and humanitarian awards. In 1999, HBO made a documentary, “Fists of Freedom” that told the story behind the protest and the reaction to it.

“We were not Antichrists. We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country,” Smith said during “Fists of Freedom.” “I don’t like the idea of people looking at it as negative. There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag – not symbolizing a hate for it.”

In 2008, on the 40th anniversary of those Olympic Games, Smith and Carlos received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at ESPN’s “Espy Awards.”

Both men eventually earned advanced college degrees.