It’s been 10 years since Sacramento hosted a major track and field event, an absence that will be rectified today with the opening of the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships.
In 2000 and 2004, the region enthusiastically embraced the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials and celebrated America’s elite athletes. In the crowd, two older gentlemen walked largely unnoticed amid the festivities on the Sacramento State campus.
Those men, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, are coming back to Sacramento this week. Smith, the 200-meter champion at the 1968 Olympics, just celebrated his 70th birthday. Carlos, the 200-meter bronze medalist that year, is 69.
It sounds odd to state it, but Smith and Carlos had reason to doubt they would live this long when they were among the fastest men on earth. Both were once infamous in their day, but they are now quietly admired – too quietly.
If you don’t know who they are, Google their names and “black power salute.” You’ll find visually stunning images of Smith on the Olympic medal stand; his fist encased in a black leather glove is raised defiantly in the air. Carlos mirrors the stance, both with their heads lowered and eyes averted, as the American flag is raised during the awards ceremony.
Their gesture defined the turbulence of the civil rights era and made a strong statement about human rights and race relations in the United States when a racially polarized America didn’t want to hear it.
Overnight, Smith and Carlos became hugely controversial. They were suspended and removed from the Olympic Village in Mexico City. Death threats poured in. The men were shunned and hated. Unlike today, there was no avenue for Smith or Carlos to trade on their notoriety and their athletic talents for profit.
What does a statement say about a man who puts himself in danger by making it?
It’s the true definition of bravery. It deserves more recognition than a passing reference. It deserves not to be forgotten.
Sacramento will be alive this week with America’s best track athletes, a blessing for a region that knows how to stage events that will be remembered for years.
But what of men not celebrated in their time?
Smith and Carlos will be in South Lake Tahoe on Friday to commemorate the ground where the two prepared for glory at an Olympic training facility. Smith, who grew up 200 miles from Sacramento in the Kings County town of Lemoore, posted a mythical time of 19.83 in the 200-meter final in 1968 – a world record for 11 years and an Olympic record until 1984.
“We loved humanity so much we felt that we would become the sacrificial lambs,” Carlos said of the sprinters’ action on the Olympic medal stand in a 2004 interview with The Sacramento Bee. “What was done was an act of love.”
Smith and Carlos deserve to get some of that love back in Sacramento this week.