Tommie Smith: An Olympic journey of prejudice, then perseverance

The boos and the catcalls echoed as Tommie Smith and John Carlos walked off the medal stand in the summer of 1968, track shoes in their hands to symbolize the poverty of their youth. The noise reached a crescendo as they stepped into a tunnel labeled the dungeon in the bowels of Estadio Olímpico Universitario in Mexico City.

It was a fitting place to be for two young black men beginning a descent into sports infamy. By raising a fist in the air, Smith and Carlos felt the punitive payback of repeated punches to the face. Death threats, hate mail, isolation.

"I did not know what would happen after that," Smith said, "but if I lived, I knew it would be different."

The journey now comes with 45 years of perspective, and that change that Smith foreshadowed in the mid-summer night's air.

Smith and I are chatting in a room at the Orlando History Center on Tuesday evening, where later in the night Smith will receive the Beacon of Excellence Award from the Kerosene Lamp Foundation, headed by former Magic player Adonal Foyle.

Nobody booed as Smith came to the front of the room to receive the award. Instead, the audience -- which included former Olympic medalists Jeff Demps and Justin Gatlin -- rose in unison to give him a standing ovation.

A villain in the context of 1968. A hero in the context of 2013.

"He's helped athletes like myself fight for what you believe in, no matter what your battle is," Gatlin said.

In the summer of 1968, the battle for Smith and Carlos was social equality. The Vietnam War, racial discrimination, social unrest, all came together in a witches' brew of chaos. There was talk of an Olympic boycott by black athletes from the United States.

Instead, the Games went on, and Smith and Carlos used their influence as Olympic medalists during the victory ceremony. Smith, who set a world record in the 200 meters, and Carlos, who finished third, each raised a gloved first in the air during the playing of the National Anthem to protest the plight of blacks in the U.S. It remains one of the most iconic snapshots in sports history.

Banished from the Olympic Village, they spent the night at the El Diplomatico Hotel in Mexico City. Pariahs. Troublemakers. Or far worse.

Brent Musburger, then a sports writer with the Chicago American, called them a "a pair of black-skinned storm troopers." It was quite an ironic rip job, since Avery Brundage, then the head of the International Olympic Committee, was a Nazi sympathizer.

Time would eventually prove that Smith and Carlos were on the right side of history.

"Sacrifice was so often necessary to make real the idea of change," Smith said. "…overcoming is not a dead issue. There's always overcoming."

Smith lost his job in downtown auto dealership in San Jose, Calif. His marriage ended in divorce. He was forced to move in with former Olympic teammate Lee Evans, with only a suitcase in his hand.

Smith overcame all that hardship and backlash to eventually become an educator, teaching sociology at Oberlin College and Santa Monica College. Now 68, he is remarried and lives with his wife Delois in Georgia. He has received countless accolades, including the 2008 Arthur Ashe Courage Award (along with Carlos) during the ESPYs.

He has a lot of Olympic memories and trinkets in a secured 1,500-square foot gallery in his home, but those iconic black gloves are long gone.

He sold his 1965 Nova in 1969, and forgot the gloves were stuck in the back seat somewhere. His six-month-old son at the time was always playing with them when daddy drove him around town in San Jose.

A lost memento on a tumultuous road of personal sacrifice.

Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego or e-mail him at gdiaz@orlandosentinel.com

CHICAGO

More