More than 50 years after they were kicked off the US team and sent home from the 1968 Mexico City Olympics for their raised-fist protest, Tommie Smith and John Carlos on Friday received a long-awaited moment of redemption.
The former sprinters, once rebuked as unpatriotic for using the Olympic platform to make a political statement, received the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s highest honor as they were inducted onto the organization’s Hall of Fame.
After walking the red carpet ahead of the induction ceremony in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Carlos discussed how his day of recognition from the committee finally came to pass.
“We realized that after 51 years, the greatest invention was not the plane, not the TV, not the telephone, but the eraser,” Carlos, 74, told reporters in a telephone interview. “To realize that we can make mistakes in life and there should be no shame. I think the [committee] has come to that point.”
Smith and Carlos finished first and third respectively in the 200m final and then launched an unprecedented protest on behalf of oppressed American blacks when they stood on the podium with heads bowed and black-gloved fists raised skyward.
Smith and Carlos faced criticism for their stand, jeopardizing their careers and reputations.
However, Carlos was crystal clear when asked if he would change anything if he could go back in time.
“Let me say this loud and clear: No regrets whatsoever. No regrets whatsoever,” Carlos said. “One more time: No regrets whatsoever.”
The protest, which occurred amid the civil rights movement in the US and not long after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, cost Carlos and Smith dearly.
At home they were heroes to their contemporaries and pariahs to the establishment.
They were suspended from the US Olympic team and sent home, where they received death threats and hate mail. Carlos’ wife committed suicide, Smith’s first marriage collapsed and both men struggled for years to make a living.
“We sacrificed our careers, but we helped so many others,” Carlos said.
For decades the former sprinters were left on the sidelines of the official US Olympic movement. Their 2016 visit to the White House, along with US Olympic committee leaders, marked the first official event they had been part of since their ouster in 1968.
Carlos said his induction into the Hall of Fame sent a clear message to the world.
“If you’ve done the right thing and haven’t disrespected anyone, and you believe that you can make a significant change for society for the better, you should take the initiative to do that,” he said. “In the 51 years that have passed, I think we’ve come to the realization that, hey man, we have to be a lot more open-eyed.”
The gesture by Carlos and Smith has long since entered the iconography of athletic protest and remains one of the most iconic acts of defiance in American sports history.
At the time, the US Olympic Committee expressed its regrets to the International Olympic Committee and said the actions by Carlos and Smith “violates the basic standards of good manners and sportsmanship.”
Carlos could not have seen it any differently.
“I earned my right to be on that victory stand. No one was out there in the mornings when I was training… I trained to represent this country, to go to the Olympics,” he said. “Based on my commitment to the program and my spiritual belief in God … that 15 minutes of fame [on the podium], I had to do what I feel is the right thing to do.”