It has come around and gone again. Another anniversary, another chat about that day and those fists and why, after 52 laps, the old runner occasionally feels he has been punching himself in the head all this time.
‘I see the s*** in the news, stuff still happening today,’ he says, and at this point one of the brave men from a famous picture turns up his palms.
‘I could say I’m disappointed by what has not happened in 52 years, but equally I could say I’m disappointed by what has not happened in 502 years in terms of how long it has taken for society to wake up and realise.’
It has been 52 years since his iconic stance, but John Carlos feels society needs to wake up still
Carlos (right) and Tommie Smith (centre) made their iconic protest at Mexico City Olympics
With that, John Carlos finds himself a little exasperated, and you would be too if your life was committed to a message that seems so indisputable and yet so hard to grasp for too many.
Over the past few months he’s watched the bulletins about George Floyd, Jacob Blake and countless others, and he knows the world has not changed enough; that there is too much overlap with what he saw on his way up and down those steps in Mexico City with Tommie Smith and Peter Norman on October 16, 1968.
But then he thinks about Colin Kaepernick. And about NBA players walking off court and the Premier League footballers kneeling before each game. About a slogan that went around the globe and the scores of athletes who are speaking out and not being forced to burn their kids’ furniture to survive. He mulls over all of that, this man of 75, and from his home in Atlanta, Georgia he beams out a smile.
‘I made a statement all those years ago that if you don’t like me for what I stand for then wait for the next generation,’ he says. ‘Well, they are here now. They are speaking in the voice I spoke in 52 years ago — the voice of humanity.
‘Society has reached a point where it says racism is a disease and the only way to conquer it is to conquer fear. People are walking through that fear now and they are talking. It makes me optimistic for the future. It does.
‘But it’s a long road. And it’s been a long one to get here.’
That is some understatement.
The likes of Colin Kaepernick have continued the fight started by Carlos and Smith
The most iconic moment in the history of the Olympic Games started with a vision. Carlos was a boy of seven in Harlem, New York when he had what he describes as a detailed premonition.
‘Whoever created this world we live in showed a picture in my mind of me standing on a box in a field before I even knew what athletics was,’ he says.
‘I remember there were people all around and I lifted my hand the same way you all saw in the pictures. Then, like someone flicked a switch, all the joy in the field turned to people calling me names and spitting venom.
‘My daddy could see I was worried that night. He was telling me he would keep me protected but he also told my mother over my head, “God has something special planned for this kid”.’
Growing up in the US in the 50s and 60s racial inequalities were everywhere Carlos looked. He recalls being told by his father, a cobbler, that he couldn’t be an Olympic swimmer because the pools were only for the wealthy and white and it was a recurring challenge of his early life that he and his neighbours often went hungry. Outrunning security guards after stealing food from freight trains meant Carlos became famous for his speed long before any 200m race.
It was via his proximity to some of the country’s most prominent voices in social justice that Carlos sharpened his activism. As a teenager he repeatedly hustled his way into conversations with Malcolm X after his rallies and when he started on the track programme at San Jose State University he came into orbit with Harry Edwards, a sociology professor and, crucially, the founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights group.
Carlos finished third in the men’s 200 metre final, behind Smith at the 1968 Olympic Games
It was also at San Jose that he met Smith, a fellow student and one year his senior on the team. While they were not close friends, and never would be, together they bought into Edwards’ plan that black athletes should boycott the 1968 Olympics entirely as a protest against racial segregation.
‘I advocated the boycott,’ says Carlos. ‘For me the message was more important than being there.’
Their proposal ultimately gave way as the Games drew closer, but combined with the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968, it served as a heated backdrop to the extraordinary scene that played out in the moments after the men’s 200m final.
The nuts and bolts of the podium protest are well known. Smith won gold in 19.83sec and Carlos, who had run an unofficial world record at the US Trials a month earlier, was third behind Peter Norman, a white Australian. By the time the men went to the podium, Smith and Carlos had colluded to make a statement in front of the world.
‘We knew people would be mad,’ Carlos says. ‘But that is why I was there — I wasn’t there for the race. I was there for the after-race.’
Smith, 24, and Carlos, 23, walked out shoeless to denote black poverty, Carlos wore beads to symbolise the lynching of black Americans, Smith had a black scarf for black pride, and they shared Smith’s gloves — Carlos had the left hand, Smith the right. In support, Norman wore a human rights badge. When The Star-Spangled Banner played, the two Americans lowered their heads and each raised a gloved fist, creating a picture that set off on a frenzied trip around the world.
Among other disputes, the root of the idea has been a source of contention in subsequent years, with both men claiming it. Carlos maintains he first conceived it after the heats, saying: ‘It was my idea initially but collectively we figured out how we were going to do it.’
In the stadium, the initial reaction was a stunned silence. Before long the booing started. Carlos recalls: ‘I told Tommie just before we got up, “If anyone is going to shoot us, remember we’ve been trained to listen for the gun and run”. When we were there, it was silent, and then the venom came. Just like the vision.’
In the hours after the protest, before the International Olympic Committee took an action that stands as an almighty stain 52 years on, Smith gave the best summary for why they had acted: ‘If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, they would say I’m a Negro.’
The backlash, when it came later that day, was vicious. Avery Brundage, the loathsome former IOC president who took no issue with the Nazi salutes at the Berlin Games of 1936, ordered that the pair be immediately suspended from the US team for breaching rules preventing political gestures. When the US Olympic Committee refused the entire squad was threatened with expulsion and so they caved in. The IOC has never apologised.
‘You have to realise that the Olympic movement was brought into the world based upon prejudice,’ Carlos says. ‘How long did it take before they put the Olympics in a Third World nation? The Olympic movement didn’t invent racism but they perpetuated it.’
Within 48 hours, Carlos and Smith had been booted back to a country that seethed. ‘I had death threats before the Olympics, during the Olympics and especially after the Olympics in the US,’ Carlos says.
‘It got bad.’
They really suffered, those three. That includes the late Peter Norman, who was ostracised in sporting circles back in Australia.
Smith never ran another race and Carlos gave it only one more year before he quit, with both men facing masses of abuse and threats in the US. While Muhammad Ali rated their protest as ‘the single most courageous act of the century’, the prevailing view was far more hostile. The FBI looked into them as ‘rabble rousers’, the White House extended no invitations and local farmers took to posting dead rats to Smith’s mother.
‘My kids had to go to a maze of instances in school,’ Carlos says. ‘Once they would integrate some place you find out their last name was Carlos and they faced reprisals. It happened for years.’
The pair, as well as Australian sprinter Peter Norman, were ostracised following the protest
Carlos, like Smith, saw his marriage collapse amid the stress of it all. That Carlos’s ex-wife, Kim, later committed suicide in 1977 was a result of the fallout, in his view, though Kimme, the eldest of his three children, believes it was more complicated.
Jobs were hard to come by. Both men tried and failed to break into American Football and, while Smith became a PE teacher, Carlos drifted for years, flitting between work as a groundsman and nightclub bouncer before finally settling into a new life as a high-school counsellor where he stayed for three decades. In his darkest days he recalls chopping up a chest of drawers and burning it one winter when his children were young because he couldn’t afford the heating.
‘It was hard,’ he says. ‘But if you ask me, all this time on, my life is one grain of sand on the beach and someone put my grain on the table with two others and said you three have an opportunity to make a difference. I’m just honoured that I had a chance to do what I thought was right.
‘My only regret is that I didn’t protect my wife and my kids as much as I should have. My first wife took her life, my kids suffered. This thing didn’t just come after me.’
With the progression of time Carlos and Smith are widely seen as heroes of a cause these days. Both have had statues and doctorates and all manner of credit as the world caught up or at least narrowed the gap. They are the foundation stones on which men like Kaepernick have stood and there are not many in sport whose work has gone to such important places.
Carlos says his only regret is that he didn’t protect his wife and kids as much as he should have
If there is a jarring element to that revival of image it is that their own relationship is quite peculiar.
‘Mr Smith is on his own plain,’ Carlos says. ‘He would like to run on his independent thing and for years I’ve been trying to make him understand that whether you like me, admire me, respect me or not the bottom line is we’re joined in history forever.’
There has also been some dispute in Carlos’s oft-repeated claim that he let Smith win way back on that day in Mexico.
‘Why would I win a race that means nothing to me and take it away from an individual who it means everything to?’ he says. ‘I’m willing to take a lie detector test about everything.’
He could. Or it could just rest, a trifling squabble behind the picture of a far, far greater argument that, sadly, is still ongoing.