ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Smith : « Le sport, ce n’est pas seulement être premier… »
by Interview conducted by Frédéric Sugnot
Translated Thursday 21 August 2008, by
An icon - the man who raised his fist for freedom during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, is sitting at a table for an interview at the opening of the Beijing Games.
A fist raised to the sky during the Mexican Games in 1968. This is the image that made him an icon. Tommie Smith, born June 6th 1944, stood for the ethos at the heart of the turbulent sixties and of the fight for civil rights in the United States. Forty years on, this renowned man of great distinction who has made history, is with us in Paris at the initiative of his former sponsors, Puma. And if his silhouette has thickened out a bit, his word is still compelling. Tommie Smith, the angry man of Mexico, could have been a slam artist.
We close our eyes and return to 1968. The 16th October, to be precise. What were you thinking before you mounted the podium to receive the gold medal for the 200 metres at the Olympic Games in Mexico?
TOMMIE SMITH: I thought it was time to act. At that time we often discussed our strategies on Human Rights. The last part of our discussion was what we hoped to achieve that day at the Olympics with John Carlos. Our gesture on the podium, that was something visual but at the same time respectful. It was also silent. But what we did on the 16th October in Mexico, in fact played only a small part in drawing attention to the years of grief and misery endured by black Americans.
What were the feelings which drove you on at that time? Fear? Doubt?
TOMMIE SMITH: We felt hope and also anxiety. But most of all we hoped that our gesture would leave its mark and stay in people’s memories for a long time. Quite simply because the fight for civil rights and equality in the United States needed to be pinpointed, to be highlighted. And then, I prayed that the next sound I heard in the middle of the American national anthem would not be a gun shot. I felt as if every rifle on earth was pointing in my direction!
During the last forty years have you for one moment asked yourself ‘“What would my life have been like if I had not raised my fist?” ’
TOMMIE SMITH: Never. I have never regretted this gesture because I never considered that it was wrong. When I raised my fist in Mexico, it was my feelings which came to the surface, my opinions, my thoughts and dreams of equality. But it was most of all the right to get up on the podium, to raise this fist because of the inequality which was at the very core of the American political system and I could no longer support that. It was time to change, to change the course of the history of the United States.
Forty years after 1968, the course of the history of the United States also seems to be at a turning point with the rise in popularity of one man, Barack Obama
TOMMIE SMITH: Yes, it is true. Obama is an indication that history is once again on the move, he is demonstrating to the most disadvantaged members of our society that all things are possible and ‘‘Yes, we can do it!’’ An African-American can be president. Yes, America can change. Over the years the United States has spent huge, colossal sums of money on killing people and Obama has shown us that, to the contrary, the United States could spend this money to help those in need, could dedicate itself to social policies — not to killing people.
Tommie Smith, do you have a dream like Dr King? Is he one of your role models?
TOMMIE SMITH: I almost always have the same dream, that of a society where one day black people will no longer have issues about white people, and will be able to enter the White House free of this particular concern.
We now leave the United States and head for Beijing where you will be watching the Olympic Games. Are you expecting to see another Tommie Smith raising his fist on behalf of Human Rights in China?
TOMMIE SMITH: Wait a minute, the Beijing games and those in Mexico aren’t at all the same thing. Times have changed. The world we live in today is very different, with greater emphasis being placed on Human and Civil Rights. Nowadays, the problem is world-wide, whereas in 1968 we were protesting against something which concerned only the United States. And then, the real question is ‘‘Why did the International Olympic Committee give the games to China?’’ Why reward this government, so to speak?
But do you hope for a gesture from an athlete on the podium, like yours forty years ago?
TOMMIE SMITH: Every athlete has the right to do what his conscience tells him. But don’t forget that the Olympic Games today represent a battle of superiority between the nations, and in fact they have become quite a political platform. So some people might indeed have personal initiatives, but I believe that athletes should concentrate on their events and put politics aside.
And what will you do in Beijing?
TOMMIE SMITH: I am going to China to watch the Games.To see sport in a stadium. Nothing else.
TOMMIE SMITH: Nothing else.
Alright. Let’s talk about sport. Are you a big fan of sporting events?
TOMMIE SMITH: Yes. Not only athletics anyway, but all sport that I understand. I like to understand movement in sport, to know how each individual is able to perfect this or that action. But I don’t support anyone in particular. The ‘come on’ shouted from the top of the terraces isn’t my scene. In actual fact, I like the technique, the reactions, the aesthetics. We must not forget that sport is not just about winning. Sport is also about how you get on with those around you, how you behave, full stop, how you are at the warm-up, during the stretching exercises. It is the sum total.
Is there also, in this sum total, the reality that that high level sport today is being unfairly criticised, with all the tales of drug abuse and corruption.
TOMMIE SMITH: Cheating? Drugs? As for cheating — well unfortunately that’s part of life. For myself, I work on a principle: I have confidence when I see an athlete in front of me on the podium. There is always plenty of time to be disappointed afterwards.
In the last three years two French towns, Saint-Ouen and La Courneuve have given your name to sports-centres. Is there a gymnasium or sports centre named after you in the United States?
TOMMIE SMITH: No! I am not even in the Hall of Fame (1) of the American Olympic Committee. It should be said that I have done a lot for……I wasn’t in their system, but I know that I stood up for truth and real values.
An idea to end with. I think you would make a very good manager of the International Olympic Committee.
TOMMIE SMITH (laughing): Thank you, I’ll pay you ten dollars at the end of this interview. Seriously though, I don’t think any such thing would be possible. I wouldn’t want to be tied down to one organisation. I ‘belong’ to Puma.
Exactly. Let’s talk about your connection with the Puma range of sports equipment. What is your role, what is the nature of your contract with them?
TOMMIE SMITH: As I often say, Puma is my family. In Mexico they always supported me although we hadn’t signed anything. From now on we have a more formal relationship. I support their principles, I am their spokesman and I am also the godfather for the athletes who use their equipment.
What is your response to those who say that it is commercial exploitation of your gesture in Mexico?
TOMMIE SMITH: I tell them they’re right!
(1) Memorial and museum where those who have achieved outstanding success in their fields are honoured.