Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Echoes of Silence

10/16/17 is the 49th anniversary of the famous black power protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the 200m victory stand at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. 

This is my story of the 2014 dedication of the 1968 training camp at Echo Summit, CA, as a California Historical Landmark - a story of that day, and of their times.

I’ve included an addendum to reflect recent scholarship on the role of the ‘third man on the podium,’ Australia’s fast-closing silver medalist, Peter Norman.

photo credit: www.usatoday.community
Peter Norman (silver), Tommie Smith (gold, world record), John Carlos (bronze)
Men’s 200m victory ceremony, 1968 Olympics, Mexico City

Echoes of Silence

by Mark Cullen

June 27, 2014

The 1968 US Men’s Olympic track and field team, arguably the greatest ever assembled, was honored today with the recognition of the Echo Summit, CA, US Men’s Track and Field Olympic Trials and high-altitude training site as a California Historical Landmark.

A crowd of several hundred gathered to celebrate the track and field legends who put their stamp on US social, cultural, and athletic history.

Members of the ’68 team in attendance were Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Ed Caruthers, Norm Tate, Reynaldo Brown, Larry Young, Tracy Smith, Mel Pender, Ed Burke, Geoff Vanderstock, and Bill Toomey. Smith and Carlos were the featured speakers.

Four world records were set during the Olympic Trials at the 7382’ elevation of the Echo Summit site, chosen for its nearly identical elevation to that of Olympic host Mexico City.

The ceremony was at the same time touching and moving, high-spirited and celebratory. It had the look and feel of a family reunion. The eloquent remarks of the speakers were greeted with repeated and sustained standing ovations by the knowledgeable and enthusiastic crowd.

Bob Burns, former Sacramento Bee reporter and the force behind the recognition of Echo Summit, said, “Few teams mirrored the social climate of their times as much as the ’68 Olympic track team did the 1960s.”

Jill Geer, USATF Chief Public Affairs Officer, cited “the importance of these people not only to sport but to society.” Geer pointed out that while the team is rightly noted for its 12 Olympic gold medalists, 20 of its team members have been inducted into the USATF Hall of Fame. “This team was so good that you didn’t have to win a gold medal to make it to the Hall of Fame.”

California state historian William Burg said that of over 1,000 California historic sites, Echo Summit is “the only one associated with both sports and civil rights history.”

South Lake Tahoe Mayor Pro-Tem Brooke Laine paid tribute to Walt Little, South Lake Tahoe’s Recreation Director in the 1950s and ‘60s, who was instrumental in convincing Bill Bowerman, Director of the US Olympic High Altitude Training Program, to accept the Echo Summit bid.

Little’s sons, Walt Jr. and Bill, in a stirring memorial, revealed that their family had lost their house as their father had used mortgage funds to help pay for athletes’ food.

Walt Little, Jr., said that their father was motivated “because of the Olympians and what they stood for. Dad carved his dream of a track and field arena out of the ice, the snow, and the trees. Echo Summit became the most beautiful track and field arena the world has ever seen.”

John Carlos lauded Little as “an icon in the world of athletics.”

“We are proud to have been a small part of your success,” Little, Jr., said to the assembled athletes. “Welcome home.”

My youth was marked by political violence: the assassination of the President when I was 11 and of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy when I was 16. Shortly before the 1968 Olympic Trials began, there were riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Upon the opening of the Olympics in Mexico City, protests there were brutally suppressed. The 1963 March on Washington was peaceful, but by 1968 there was a growing divide in both the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements over what kinds of action to take.

That discussion was reflected in the choices made by athletes at Echo Summit. To boycott the Olympics or not? African-American athletes were under heavy pressure to do so. But all made the same choice: to represent their country in Mexico City.

When Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medal winners in the Mexico City 200m, took the victory stand and raised their glove-covered fists in silent protest, I was awestruck at the peaceful eloquence of their statement.

They spoke to the whole world without uttering a single word.

The next day, the US Olympic Committee, under threat by the IOC of having the entire US team disqualified from the Olympics, dismissed Smith and Carlos from the team and they were forced to leave Mexico City immediately.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos have been united for life by their singular act as young men. They have traversed the territory from outcasts to heroes. Their “protest on the victory stand in Mexico City is one of the iconic images of the 1960s and the civil rights movement,” said Burns.

After their peaceful protest, Smith and Carlos paid a heavy personal price, and it was common to find them denounced in the US media for what were characterized as unpatriotic acts.

“Mr. Smith and I, in particular,” said Carlos, “we were vilified.”

Carlos noted the irony of the fact that he and Smith are now regarded as patriots and said, “All the individuals on this team are patriots… In many ways they tried to divide our team: these guys are civil rights activists, these guys are athletes. These guys are for a boycott, these guys are not for a boycott.”

“I’m just here to let you know now that we are one. We have been one all along.”

Smith and Carlos reflected on their days at Echo Summit. Both expressed gratitude and appreciation to the US Forest Service for their support of the ‘100 Days at Tahoe’ in 1968 as well as Friday’s ceremony.

“Look around and you see the goodness,” Smith said to the many youth foresters who staffed this event. “My heart is so full now.”

Smith remembered what it was like to take the turn from Highway 50 to the track at Echo Summit. “I hated to see that turn because that meant I had to train against him, and to train against John Carlos is no fun at all! You would have to run a world best just to stay in his shadow,” said Smith.

Smith noted the humor that came with practicing at a site that was carved out of a forest. When Bob Seagren came down from a 17’ pole vault clearance, Smith recalled, “I thought he had fallen out of a tree!”

To say that they raised the bar for each other is to put it mildly. “Tommie and John had to run awfully fast to put themselves in a position to mount a protest that will outlast any record,” said Burns.

Carlos paid tribute to the US athletes who watched the Olympics from home.

'I have to remember those individuals who did not make the team… It’s just unfortunate that God put so many of us in a cluster and we could only pick three. But it didn’t stop us in terms of who we were as human beings... as civil libertarians... as people that were concerned about humanity.'

Smith reflected on his remaining time on this earth. “I hope that it’s longer than I feel sometimes… Sometimes you get up in the morning, you head for the door - and it never gets to you!”

Carlos concluded by noting that “the only downfall that we had here is the fact that we didn’t have a co-ed team. It was a shame that the women that represented this nation did not have a chance to experience the beauty, the love, the understanding, and bonding that we had.”

In 1968, their silent act of courage echoed around the world; it reverberates still.

Today, it echoed among these trees, one last time.

photo credit: pausatf.org

Peter Norman Update

Peter Norman, Australian silver medalist, also paid dearly for his courage. He wore a badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights in support of Smith and Carlos, and for this he, too, was vilified in his home country. 

In spite of the fact that he met the 1972 100m and 200m qualifying marks repeatedly, was the 200m defending silver medalist and the Australian 200m record holder (and still is to this day), he was not named to Australia’s 1972 Olympic team. To Australia’s eternal shame, Norman was not invited to the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

It was in 2012 that the Australian Parliament finally apologized to Norman.

Too little too late; he had died in 2006.

Smith and Carlos, lifelong friends of Norman’s, served as pallbearers at his funeral.

Research credit for information about Peter Norman: Riccardo Gazzaniga.


Track and Field Autographs of a Lifetime



Program signed at the dedication of the Echo Summit, CA, site of the
1968 US Olympic High Altitude Training Center and Olympic Trials
June 27, 2014

Photo copyright 2014 Mark Cullen, All Rights Reserved




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