Shaking a hand from history: Meeting Tommie Smith

Journalist Karien Jonckheere was given the opportunity, courtesy of PUMA South Africa, to meet legendary athlete Tommie Smith at the PUMA House in Budapest. Karien brings the experience to life.

Having covered sport as a journalist for over 20 years, it’s not often I get starstruck anymore. Until I met Tommie Smith.

I couldn’t quite believe I was shaking the very hand that caused such a massive furore over half a century ago when it was raised on the Olympic podium in Mexico City in that famous Black Power salute. I had seen the famous photo so many times and here he was, sitting down for an interview with me at PUMA House during the World Athletics Championships in Budapest. Far from being an aloof political icon, the former Olympic champion was nothing but warm, gracious and engaging. Despite the fact he must have been asked to recount that day thousands of times over, the now 79-year-old listened closely to every question, thinking carefully about his responses.

His manner was that of a kindly uncle or grandfather, not a man whose courageous actions 55 years ago have resonated across the decades – after he and teammate John Carlos took to the podium without shoes to protest against Black poverty and raised their gloved hands in defiance.

At the time, the duo were vilified by the American media and ousted from the Olympic village but it was a day that would define the rest of their lives.

Sitting opposite him, the American spoke with passion of his vivid memories, how he was nursing an injury at the time and wasn’t even sure he’d reach the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games. As a result, his and Carlos’s actions had not been planned very far in advance. He’d had to order the gloves from California at the last minute and they were brought to Mexico by his wife.

The conversation soon turned to South Africa and Smith confirmed he had petitioned for both South Africa and the former Rhodesia to be kicked out of the Olympic movement. “Your leaders were coming up with some outrageous statements at the time,” he told me.

Then I struck on a question he said he’d never been asked before in an interview. Perhaps he’d just forgotten in the countless interviews he’s given over the years, but it still gave me something of a thrill to have asked a question he relished: Was it true that the first time that flashed up at the end of his 200m race that day back in 1968 was 19.78?

“Thank you,” he beamed. It was.

Smith said he was actually disappointed when he saw the time of 19.83. It was nevertheless the first legal time under 20 seconds. It had earned him the Olympic gold and the chance to carry out his podium protest. His world record is often forgotten because of the storm that followed the medal presentation, but it was a mark that stood for the next 11 years. Had the original time of 19.78 stood, it would have been the same time that Jamaican icon Usain Bolt ran to claim Olympic gold in Rio 48 years later.

Asked his thoughts on Bolt, Smith couldn’t have been more complimentary, not only of the eight-time Olympic champion’s achievements on the track but also his social upliftment and education projects off it.

Was it true that Smith gave one of his shoes from that 1968 race to Bolt for his birthday back in 2010?

“Did I?” he laughed. “I want my shoe back, Usain!”

We reached the end of our conversation with chat about the technicalities of running a 200m, how much the technology has changed and what he might have been able to achieve if he was running with the current advances available to him. Also about how he follows the current protagonists in the sport and his predictions for the 200m final at these World Athletics Championships in Budapest. Finally, we chat about American Noah Lyles who stormed to 100m gold and the young gun from Botswana, Letsile Tebogo, who blitzed to the silver. He’s mightily impressed by both.

His prediction for 200m gold on Friday?

“I don’t know about that. All I know is that I’m going to get a really good seat to watch.”

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