John Carlos: "Humanity is the blood and guts of the Olympics"
Monday, 21 May 2012
Mexico City 1968, the first Summer Games I remember.
As a blindly patriotic eight-year-old, however, my memories revolve mainly around David Hemery, Britain's 400 metres hurdles gold medallist.
Or, to quote the BBC's David Coleman: "HEMERY!!"
My main recollection of the black power salute is of a tut-tuttingly English sense of mild disapproval.
What were we thinking?
More than four decades on, John Carlos (pictured above, right), one of the two American 200m medallists who raised gloved fists on the Mexico victory podium, is talking me through the lead-up to this historic gesture from a London hotel within racing distance of Wembley Stadium.
"We had been planning on doing a boycott of the Games," he tells me.
But many black athletes and other supporters of the civil rights movement "felt it was difficult for them to consider giving up their 15 minutes in the sun".
There was a vote and the boycott idea was dropped.
Once Carlos and the teammate he generally refers to as "Mr Smith" (Tommie Smith (pictured above, centre), the eventual gold medallist) had fought their way through to the final of their event, though, Carlos felt that he still wanted to "make a statement".
"From that point on we started bringing the artefacts together," he said.
I put it to Carlos, who ultimately crossed the line third, that at the halfway point in the final – which can be viewed here – he had the race at his mercy.
"I shut it down," he tells me.
"I didn't go there to win the gold medal...
"The last 80 metres I was striding, looking for Tommie to come.
"Ten metres from the finish-line I [remembered] Peter Norman (the Australian silver medallist).
"The most powerful part of his race was the last 20 metres."
Though first and third, rather than first and second, the two black Americans had made it to the podium, and it was here that they made the famous black-gloved salute that would change their lives, but also help to transform those of millions of others.
In the 21st century, protest groups of all stripes have become adept at commandeering the mass media to try to get their message across.
In 1968, though, Smith and Carlos' action was very much a novelty – and all the more shocking for that.
"It was the first time ever on planet earth that anyone had gone to a spectacle like the Olympic Games and done something as stunning as that," Carlos explains.
"It was right in their face.
"Not just people in the stadium, it was televised around the world."
Carlos' "artefacts" went considerably beyond Tommie Smith's now famous black gloves, one of which Carlos donned.
The two men took to the podium in black stockinged feet.
Carlos' tracksuit top was unzipped, displaying a string of beads honouring victims of racially-motivated lynchings.
And then there were the Puma shoes.
Carlos tells me he placed his shoe "right where the logo was visible for the world" because the company had come to his assistance on two important occasions.
During a trip to Trinidad in 1965, an airline strike had led to him being stranded there for an extra 30 days at a time when his wife was pregnant because, he says, no one else would honour his ticket back.
By the time he returned, he had lost his job.
"I went to Puma; they didn't know who I was but they gave me a job in the stock-room."
The company later also helped to send four members of the New York Pioneer Club Carlos belonged to, including one Bob Beamon, to California.
For these small kindnesses, Puma has a niche in one of the most iconic images in sporting history.
During the moments he stood on the podium with his left arm raised, one of the thoughts that flashed through Carlos' mind was a "vision" he had as a small boy.
"Everybody was excited," he tells me.
"I was on a box. I realised they were applauding for something I had done. I went to wave to the people. I'm right-handed, but I did it with my left hand. I barely got my hand up before people started cussing.
"In Mexico City 15 years later, that's what happened."
The reaction plainly got to Carlos.
He told reporters at a subsequent press conference: "You think of us as animals. Tommie and I heard them boo tonight and we saw their white faces. What I say is, and I want you to print this right or not at all, that white people who go to see blacks perform and can boo them like they did tonight, should not go to see us at all."
Not everyone booed: Carlos now describes the response of teammates and others as "mixed opinion; some with, some against; a mixed basket of fruit."
Sir Roger Bannister, the Briton who had broken the four-minute mile barrier, to his eternal credit, expressed the view that the podium demonstration was "a gesture conducted with dignity and poise and all very memorable".
Silver medallist Norman wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge.
Neil Allen, the man from The Times, wrote perceptively that Smith and Carlos had "made sporting history by becoming the first Olympic champions, not to make money, but to make racial political capital out of the most treasured moments of their sporting careers".
The boos were, of course, only the start of the two men's problems.
Indeed, Carlos reckons it took all of 35 years for the negativity of much of the initial reaction to their gesture to begin in earnest to be transformed.
In that difficult period, undoubtedly the most painful moments came after his first wife had taken her own life.
Carlos still believes that the overwhelming importance of their goals justified the dark times.
His and Smith's demonstration was, he argues, "very, very necessary to bring attention to social issues...
"It was like shock treatment.
"Our conscience had gone to sleep to such an extent we didn't care about the fate of our fellow man...
"We didn't want to hurt the Olympic Movement or take anything away from the athletes," Carlos says.
However: "We felt this was far more important; this was about humanity...
"How could you not say the Olympics had everything to do with humanity?
"Humanity is the blood and guts of the Olympics."
Before leaving Mexico, Carlos reveals to me, he had a hand in another substantial piece of sporting history – Bob Beamon's (pictured above) epochal 29ft 2½in long jump, a leap that shattered the then world record by not far off two feet.
"Bob and I grew up together," Carlos, who was born in Harlem, tells me.
Explaining how Beamon "almost didn't make the team", Carlos relates how he tried to offer the long-jumper helpful advice.
"I told him, 'It's like an aeroplane,'" he says.
"It doesn't just take off. It goes to the start-line, it gets psyched up and it blazes down the runway.
"I had him work out in the sprints. He had run 9.3secs in the 100 [yards]. So I got him up to speed and then said, 'Go work on your steps'."
The rest, as they say, is history.
I had expected Carlos to have mixed feelings to say the least about the Olympic Movement, but in fact he comes across as reasonably positive.
"I always cherish the Olympics because it does so much for young individuals," he tells me.
"Everyone who has a God-given talent has a right for the world to see it. That's what it's for.
"On the athletic field, it's fantastic, but in terms of administration and vision, they could do a lot better job."
It is also good to verify that the bronze medal hanging around Carlos' neck when he took his stand is similarly cherished.
"My mum has my medal," he tells me.
While it has, he says, "no significant value" to him, "there is a possibility it might mean everything to my kids.
"In the Carlos household, the medal is revered.
"I am happy that they are happy with it."
Amen to that.
John Carlos' website is at www.johncarlos68.com.
David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 World Cup. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed here.