Famed Athlete Scrutinized For Cashing In On Symbolic Medal

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Tommie Smith made history at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games for both winning a gold medal and then lowering his head and raising his fist in a black power salute during the medal ceremony. Now Smith has put his gold medal up for auction with bids starting at $250,000. Host Michel Martin speaks with John Carlos, who won the bronze medal and raised his fist along with Smith, and David Steele, co-author of Tommie Smith's memoir: "Silent Gesture."

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

If you follow sports or even if you don't, you may very well have seen that famous photo from the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Track and field gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists on the award stand during the U.S. national anthem. The moment became iconic, framed in the memories of millions here and around the world. Smith spoke to the BBC after the ceremony. Here what he had to say.

Mr. TOMMIE SMITH (Olympic Gold Medalist): People call it black power. Of course, I'm black. Of course, I'm representing power. But it was a cry for freedom here. Notice me. I'm in need. What are you in need of? Justice.

MARTIN: That was Tommie Smith in 1968. Now he says he's putting his Olympic gold medal, along with his red and white track shoes up for auction. The bidding starts at $250,000. And the bidding is supposed to close on November 4th.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called David Steele. He co-authored Tommie Smith's memoir, "A Silent Gesture." Also with us is Olympic bronze medalist John Carlos, who shared the podium and the black power salute with Smith in 1968. I welcome you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. DAVID STEELE (Co-Author, "Silent Gesture"): Thanks for having me.

Mr. JOHN CARLOS (Olympic Bronze Medalist): Good to be here.

MARTIN: Mr. Steele, what do you know about why Mr. Smith is putting his medal up for auction? You said that you don't think he's having financial problems.

Mr. STEELE: Not from anything that I've seen or heard during the time that I've known him. I know that there was one other time - a little over 10 years ago, it was back in 1999 that he put the medal up for auction. And at the time he asked for $500,000. And kind of the way he did it this time he didn't offer a public explanation. He didn't answer a whole lot of questions about it.

But when we got together to do "Silent Gesture," we talked about it, you know, at length. And he told me that at the time, he wanted to raise money for his plan for a youth foundation, a pretty expensive project back in his hometown in California. And that's what he wanted to use the money for. He was having a hard time getting a lot of connections with corporation sponsorships because he was still feeling, you know, there was still some after effects. People were still sort of butting up against him after what had happened in 1968.

And he felt that that would be a better way to put the medal to use. He cherishes the medal a lot, but he felt that he could do some things for what his plans were for youth that he would use it that way. And so my first inclination would be right that he has something like that in mind, rather than, you know, trying to support himself. Because from everything I've seen, he's doing pretty well. He's not, you know, really wanting for money, as I understand.

MARTIN: I will say that we reached out to Mr. Smith and he is not giving interviews. The head of the memorabilia group that is facilitating the auction was quoted in news reports as saying: He feels that we did ruined his life in many ways and he doesn't want to put himself in the media spotlight.

So, John Carlos, may I ask you, why is that? Do you feel that that moment ruined your life as well?

Mr. CARLOS: By no means. I think it enhanced my life. I think it enhanced the lives of many people.

MARTIN: How so?

Mr. CARLOS: First of all, it made the world aware of the plight of people of color, blacks in particular, and gave a lot of pride and respect for one another that was missing, and let them know that there was a new type of black trend of thought. I think a lot of good positive things came out of it. And I think it continues to grow.

MARTIN: What in the immediate aftermath, what was the reaction? You all were expelled from the games.

Mr. CARLOS: While it was his out there, you know, you sit back and you look at the power structure in this country, anybody that, you know, want change are classified as troublemakers, such as Jesus Christ, Dr. Martin Luther King, Harriet King, Rosa Parks, Marcus Garvey, anyone that did anything of that sort. Like, you could even say John Brown. You know, we're all classified as troublemakers because we anticipate going all course, full out to make this a better society for all people.

MARTIN: Well, tell me about, though, immediately after you - the two of you made your gesture. What happened? Did you have to leave the Olympic village right away? Or what happened immediately after?

Mr. CARLOS: Well, we stayed in the Olympic village out of courtesy to the coaches the night before the race. We checked into the village when we first got there. We checked out the village the second day, and stayed in the hotel. Our wives were in town. So we weren't going to stay in the village with our wives being in town. But as a courtesy to the coaches we stayed. And then they asked us to leave, like they were punishing us, when in actuality we were leaving the village anyway.

MARTIN: And tell me about when you returned to the United States. How were you received?

Mr. CARLOS: Well, it was a 50/50 shot. You know, it was a tremendous amount of people proud and had admiration and love for what we did and then they had other people that was disenchanted and hated what we did.

MARTIN: And let you know that.

Mr. CARLOS: Oh, it was very obvious. I mean those days, just let you know by holding you up from having employment, intimidating your so-called friends to move away from you, to scorn your kids in school. You know, they did quite a bit of things to embarrass us to society to make us look like we were bad individuals.

MARTIN: David Steele, can you amplify on that, given your awareness of Mr. Smith's circumstances. What were some of the effects on his life after the games?

Mr. STEELE: He told identical stories about when he got back to San Jose, back to college, ostracized by a lot of people who had previously supported them because they were obviously - they went into the games being perceived as, you know, Olympic heroes and American icons. And since they came back, they were perceived as traitors and rebels and militants and all the nasty things you could say about black people who were pushing back against the system at the time.

MARTIN: Was part of the argument that they had embarrassed the country overseas while they were overseas? Or was it the gesture itself?

Mr. STEELE: Well, one of the prevailing attitude among people who took the Olympics seriously was, oh, you can't use the Olympics for political protest or to speak out against anything like that, which of course was the opposite, they're playing the national anthem.

Mr. CARLOS: Let me take it a step farther to say...

MARTIN: Sure.

Mr. CARLOS: I think what it was was the fact that it was two young black individuals making a statement. Other people have made political statements with an Olympic movement of different ethnic backgrounds. They didn't have the intensity that Tommie Smith and John Carlos had to endure.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Tell me, Mr. Carlos, do you have any opinion about Mr. Smith deciding to try to sell his medal?

Mr. CARLOS: Well, you know, first of all, let me state that this is Mr. Smith's prerogative to sell the medal. He earned the medal. It's his medal to do what he care to do with. Relative to John Carlos, I always reflect back on Muhammad Ali. You know, he was disenchanted with the Olympic movement at one time and it could blind your vision in terms of what the significance of the medal is.

I think any athlete, irregardless of what their sport is, the highest goal would be to go to the Olympic Games and win an Olympic medal or to win any medal period. Muhammad Ali threw his medal in the river, and as water went under the bridge, he began to realize the significance of the medal. And fortunately for him, the Olympic committee was able to restore his medal and give him a duplicate.

Mr. Smith in the situation he is in, if he auctioned his medal off and he realized what Mr. Muhammad Ali realized, it'd be very difficult for him to replace his medal. And to get back to what Bill was saying...

MARTIN: David.

Mr. STEELE: David.

Mr. CARLOS: I'm sorry. You know, in regards to Mr. Smith's statement, you know, I agree with you less that when he put the medal up for auction he said he wanted to do something for his youth program. But then I read something the other day in regards to - he said he wants to give his medal to the people and then to want to give it to the people in one breath and then the next breath come back and say that he wants to auction it off, that's kind of contradictory to me.

So it's hard to figure why Mr. Smith would want to sell his medal. But once, again, I'd say that's his prerogative. He earned the medal and he's entitled to do what he sees fit to do.

MARTIN: Have you ever considered selling your medal?

Mr. CARLOS: None whatsoever. The medal is, like I said, there's so much history involved in the medal, and that history goes to my kids, that's their medal to do what they feel is necessary after.

MARTIN: Well, we certainly appreciate your talking to us. Before we let you go, Mr. Carlos, what effect do you think your and Mr. Smith's protest had?

Mr. CARLOS: Well, I think it had tremendous effect because here we are 42 years later and you're here questioning me about it. So it had a tremendous effect on people. I think the main thing that we wanted to accomplish back at that time was to arouse people's intellectual side to have some sort of intellectual discussion about race relations in this country and around the world.

And I think we were right on target in terms of stimulating people enough that they would want to have some sort of conversation as to the pros and cons of making a demonstration, to bring awareness to the plight of people of color in this country.

MARTIN: And David Steele, a final thought from you. What effect do you think that their protest had? And what effect do you think Mr. Smith thinks it had? I was intrigued to read those comments that he feels that it ruined his life, 'cause I was not aware that he felt - I mean, obviously he feels some bitterness about the reaction that he - the reception that he got. What do you think the effect it's had?

Mr. STEELE: I think it's had a very emotional effect on him personally because of the things that he's had to go through: the negative impact, the threats against him and his family and the people close to him and the rejection and the way he's been ostracized by a lot of people. But I know that the direct experiences that I've had with him when we've gone places to promote the book and things like that, just that there's this outpouring of love and respect and thanks for being so courageous and taking a stand, because he and Mr. Carlos really connected with a lot of people at the time and changed the way that they viewed the world.

I mean, I've had people come up to me and tell me that. It's, like, I started thinking completely differently, started realizing there are things that I could do that I never thought I'd have the courage to do until I saw you two stand up and have the courage to do what you did on that stage. So I think - I wouldn't be surprised - I'm just very conflicted about the effect that his decision had on it.

He's always said that he never regretted it and that he would do it again if he had the opportunity, but it's had a profound effect on him. And now that you hear people's - and now that people hear him say that he wants to sell it, you could see the profound effect it's having on others because people are very adamant about saying, please don't do that because that means too much to us, our history and us as a people, even 42 years later.

MARTIN: Dave Steele is a columnist for Fanhouse.com. He coauthored Tommie Smith's memoir, "A Silent Gesture." He joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Also with us, John Carlos, who won the bronze medal in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics. That's the event in which Tommie Smith won the gold. And he is a counselor at Palm Springs High School in Palm Springs, California. And he is expected to retire at the end of this school year and will spend the rest of his time talking about these significant events.

I thank you both so much for speaking to us.

Mr. CARLOS: Thank you.

Mr. STEELE: Thank you very much.

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