As “The Star Spangled Banner” blared, the tension stretched through their arms and into their clenched, black-gloved fists. Tommie Smith and John Carlos wanted the world to know about America’s Great Spot.
But it was not the stiffness of the hands of the gold and bronze medalists that put the American sprinters on the podium of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. It was relaxation.
Their coach at San Jose State, Bud Winter, cultivated a new sprint technique. No more tense jaws. No more balled up fists. Instead, open your palms. A smooth gait. A softened face for optimal speed.
The collapse of Winter’s running revolution kicks off “Legacy of Speed,” a new podcast from New York Times bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell. Inspired by the iconic photo of Smith and Carlos at the 1968 Games, the podcast explores San Jose’s rise as a “Speed City” and the background to the sprinters’ protest after their 200 meter performance.
“It was that moment of activism and protest that absolutely stunned the world,” Gladwell said. “And we wanted to understand what happened, how did it happen…and what were the repercussions of this act?
Winter’s technique has helped San Jose State sprinters become some of the best in the world.
Gladwell was struck by the sport’s most famous photo and created the podcast to showcase the story behind it. The intersection of the International Olympic Committee’s objection to any form of protest; San Jose emerging as an unlikely breeding ground for sprinters, earning the moniker Speed City; how the San Jose sprinters pictured decided to protest and inspired others to join them; and the sequel.
The Times previously reported that IOC President Avery Brundage, who oversaw the 1968 Olympics, was widely known as a racist and anti-Semite. Brundage gave the go-ahead for the 1936 Olympics to be held in Berlin despite the Nazi regime in Germany.
Years later, Brundage and the IOC wanted to invite the white supremacist regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia to the Games. They also pushed for amateurism, emphasizing that athletes should perform for the pure love of sport and without financial compensation.
The podcast highlights on this put the IOC on a collision course with the sprints being developed in San Jose under difficult circumstances.
Winter had limited scholarships, so many of his athletes, recruited largely from the downtown neighborhoods of the Bay Area and Los Angeles, struggled to eat in the city plagued by racism.
“Amateurism at the time meant that the athlete had to turn a blind eye to whatever was going on in society,” Gladwell said. “To this group of guys, Carlos and Smith and Harry Edwards, it didn’t make sense. … You’re supposed to go to the Olympics, perform in front of the world, and all of a sudden you’re not supposed to speak of what it means to be a black person in America?
Smith and Carlos rejected this. Edwards, a discus thrower at San Jose State in the 1960s, was the architect behind their salute to black power. Since then, he has focused on advancing athlete activism and most recently mentored Colin Kaepernick.
Gladwell’s podcast comes at a time when athlete activism is on the rise. Dozens followed Smith and Carlos’ lead. Dozens want to silence them. The IOC still has policies in place limiting athlete protests.
Prior to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter stated that in “all Olympic venues, venues or other areas” the committee will not permit “political, religious or racial demonstrations or propaganda”. The rule has since been changed to give athletes the opportunity to speak at press conferences, mixed zones, interviews or before competition. Last year, dozens of athletes and organizations signed an open letter calling for a ban on Rule 50.
Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Games after Brundage threatened to ban the entire US track team if they were not fired. They were criticized at home and received death threats.
Peter Norman, the Australian silver medalist, did not raise his fist, but wore a human rights badge in solidarity with Americans. Australian Olympic authorities barred him from competing at any further Games, despite his qualifying times in 1972.
“It’s a small example of the depth and intricacy and intricacy of this image,” Gladwell said.
Gladwell said he couldn’t understand why anyone could react so negatively to an athlete who gave up his glory to speak out against injustice.
“There remains this kind of extraordinary fear about what the protest does to the perception that the United States has of itself,” Gladwell said. “Why should anyone go out of their way to talk about a much bigger topic of how society treats their own, why should that scare us or make us angry?”