Decades After An Iconic Protest, Tommie Smith Has Something Else On His Mind

Originally published on September 3, 2016 6:42 pm

Sometimes in history, gems are hidden in the questions not asked.

For 48 years, Tommie Smith has talked about the night he stood on the podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics, fist thrust skyward. He had won the 200-meter sprint at the Mexico City Games, while his U.S. teammate John Carlos had taken bronze. As the national anthem played, the two African-American athletes each raised a clenched fist, covered with a black glove, as a statement against racial discrimination and for human rights.

The iconic protest came to define Smith and Carlos. And so it's no surprise that many journalists — myself among them — sought out Smith recently to discuss Colin Kaepernick's national anthem protests.

As my interview with Smith ended, though, I realized I had never heard Smith talk about the race he won in Mexico City. He was, after all, an elite athlete before he became an athlete activist.

So I asked him. And Tommie Smith answered with a question of his own.

"You know the great Usain Bolt, right?" he said, "Did you know his time of 19.78 [Bolt's winning time in the 200 meters at last month's Rio Olympics], was the same time I ran in Mexico City before they changed it to 19.83?"

The record books show Tommie Smith won the men's 200 meters in a time of 19.83. It was blazing fast — a world record at the time — and Smith became the first man to run the 200 in under 20 seconds.

But nearly half a century later, he still wonders what happened to those 5 hundredths of a second.

"When I crossed the finish line, I saw 19.78," Smith says. "And it [the time posted in the stadium] stayed lit! And when they made the announcement, 'Tommie Smith, first time under 20 seconds, 19.83,' I was disappointed!"

As he headed for the victory stand, he had to put aside the disappointment, of course. Tommie Smith, with his black glove at the ready, had a date with sports destiny.

Afterwards, he says he still felt the twinge of regret about his time.

"But who was a I gonna yell [at]? I had already come off the victory stand. I mean, gee whiz. Enough is enough!"

I joked with him that, yes, probably it was best at that moment not to cause any more trouble.

"Yeah," Smith laughed, adding, "and you're the first person I told because you're the first person to ask about the race in that context."

Smith doesn't know why the time changed as much as it did. Neither does Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. Wallechinsky notes times on the in-stadium clock often are adjusted after races, but usually by a hundredth of a second, or so. Not 5 hundredths.

"That's three good strides," Smith says.

Wallechinsky says perhaps 1968 technology was to blame.

Whatever the reason, Smith loves the fact that his 19.78 links him to Usain Bolt. There's no doubt in anyone's mind Bolt is the greatest sprinter ever. But Tommie Smith is happy to remind you about how great he was, 48 years ago.

If you happen to ask.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now we'll hear from StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative, recording interviews with men and women who've served in the post-9/11 conflicts and their loved ones. We're coming up on 15 years since September 11 and the war in Afghanistan that has claimed the lives of thousands of U.S. military personnel. Today, we'll hear about one of them - Sergeant First Class Chris Henderson. He joined the Army right out of high school in 1991. He served in Bosnia and Kosovo before he deployed to Afghanistan in 2007 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. On that tour of duty, he was killed by an IED. He left behind an 8-year-old daughter and his wife, Jenna.

JENNA HENDERSON: He had eyes the color of a swimming pool. They were the lightest blue. They sparkled. I mean, it wasn't just the color. And he always made sure that I felt loved. I can remember the times that he took me for motorcycle rides. And it would be winter almost in Washington, and we'd be freezing, yet we'd be riding up in the mountains. And I can remember looking through the tall trees out at the sound feeling the cold on my face and having my arms wrapped around him, thinking there's no other place I'd rather be.

When Kayley was probably 18 months old, I remember it was storming, and he put on her bathing suit and his bathing suit, and they're out playing in mud puddles in the pouring rain. He was such a goofball (laughter) and there was a lake right down from the house. And I can remember many times seeing the two of them with feet in the water just fishing and talking.

And there are things that come out in her that I see of him. Like, when she's upset, her little eyebrow twitches, and when she smiles, she's kind of got that little crooked smile he had. And when she laughs, you can see the light in her. And next year, when she starts high school, one of her courses is JROTC. So, I mean, she's trying to follow in his footsteps.

But, I mean, I miss him horribly. It hurts because, I mean, when it comes down to it, somebody took his life, so I'll never be at peace with that fact. But I don't think I could have married a better man.

Matter of fact, one of the last letters I got was an apology for something that had happened a year or two before. In it, he said how much he loved me and how he was glad that he had married me and that he wouldn't have changed that for the world. And that would be the one thing that I would want to tell his grandchildren or his great-grandchildren or his great-great-grandchildren, that he was a man that they could be very proud of.

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SIMON: Jenna Henderson remembering her late husband, Army Sergeant First Class Chris Henderson who was killed in Afghanistan in 2007. She recorded that interview for StoryCorps in Arlington, Va. It will be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.