On the occasion of the World championships Paris 2003 Saint-Denis, Tommie Smith, the 200m Olympic champion in Mexico, has been invited by the mayor of Saint-Denis to be a speaker at a conference on sports and education on Wednesday afternoon.
More than most champions Tommie Smith is greatly remembered 35 years after his feat, because he didn't only mark the history of athletics but together with teammate John Carlos (bronze medallist) stood up on the podium with heads bowed and a black-glove-covered fist in the air, as a protest against the way black Americans were treated in their own country.
This symbolic gesture, this commitment in favour of the America's civil rights movement cost him his career and still deeply influences the life of an great athlete who had set no fewer than eleven World records in the sprints and the relay in hardly two years. His 19.83 in the 200m as well as his 44.5 in the 400m represent times that would still allow him to fare very well in today's international competition. But 35 years later, Tommie Smith doesn't regret anything and goes back over the way it all originated.
"Back then, we were supposed to be academians, not only people who run. The project we were working on was called 'Athletes with Human Rights'. People who asked the question [about our stance on civil rights] needed to get the answer but we couldn't say a word. The best place to give the answer was Mexico. But I needed to win this race to be able to do it".
"Everything was calculated scientifically. Look at the race carefully, watch Tommie Smith's move when he caught John Carlos from the back. It wasn't a fluke."
And if Tommie Smith had the possibility to rewrite the past, would he still stand the way he did on the podium ? "I don't think I shouldn't have done it but I should have thought a bit more about it before doing it".
The consequences were indeed terrible : "We came back and we weren't very welcome in our city, even in our community : they were working for the system and the system disapproved of what we did. We were banned from competition. I never ran again international competition, just a few races at masters' level. And I'm still having problems up to now, for example I just received an e-mail with threats by a person who disapproves of my action. But in the end, it made me stronger and it helped people to understand the importance of standing up for acts".
Smith has since distanced himself from the elite level. "All these guys [the current American sprinters] certainly know the name of Tommie Smith but we don't hang out together". He both approves and keeps a critical stance on the evolution of athletics. "In our time we ran for competition, not for the money. I applaud the athletes for being paid. I fought for it. They are actors, they need to be paid". But he regrets that money has become preoccupation number one. " All what matters is finance, big cars and so on. By no means, they have the same conscience as we had".
That's why he prefers to involve himself at grass roots level. He has been a college instructor for more than 30 years at Santa Monica.
"I'm also a track and field coach at the college. I train 14-15 years old. That's where I enjoy myself : talking to kids. I deal where the need is." Tommie Smith also puts a lot of energy in its foundation whose aim is to promote education through athletics. The foundation funds scholarships, does clinics, help students to buy books.
"We need to get money to help kids into classes. But I can't do all what I'd like to because people don't give to the foundation like they'd give to someone else, always because what I did".
This was 35 years ago, but memories are still greatly present.