After Eugene, I made a last-minute work trip to San Jose. I had a few spare hours between wrapping up at the client site and returning to the airport for the red-eye, so what’s there for a track fan to do in San Jose but pay a quick visit to Speed City?
Speed City was San Jose State University, and in 1968 its track team under Coach Bud Winter was loaded with sprinters. It seems beyond paradox to me that Speed City delivered two men known today principally for standing still, or that those men had to run as fast as they did to earn their moment of immobility, but 1968 was a year of irresistible forces meeting immovable objects. There’s a statue on the campus of San Jose State which is both.
If you’ve done even a little reading about Olympic History you probably already know the image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos which is commemorated in this statue. Smith on the top step and Carlos behind him created one of the most indelible images of the Mexico City Olympics when they raised their fists and bowed their heads on the medal stand as the U.S. national anthem played for the 200m medal ceremony. Smith and Carlos are shoeless (the statue shows two of their shoes on the stand) and Carlos wears a red, green and yellow necklace. Both are wearing pins for the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Forty-one years later, it’s still visibly clear that these men had a grievance.
That moment of stillness on the stand (the statue’s silver step is empty but bears the words, “Peter Norman stood here in solidarity”) was earned with twenty seconds of absolute velocity which lead modern observers to wonder how Smith and Carlos might have compared with the likes of Bolt, Johnson and Gay had they had the benefit of modern athletics technology. And it was followed by years of chaos which would’ve given the pair a grievance if they hadn’t already had one.
The statue is moving in an unexpected sense: I felt as though the larger-than-life Smith and Carlos were about to step down from their medal stand and interrogate me, or at least demand that I, too, “take a stand.” (It looks as though other people have stood where Norman stood, for pictures or for soapboxing.) It’s really the only image they could have used, of course, but I sort of wish there was a similarly moving statue, perhaps down by the track, that showed the speed in Speed City as well.
(There are a number of interesting books about Mexico City and the Olympic Project for Human Rights. In particular I’d highlight Smith’s Silent Gesture, which would have benefitted greatly from either a harsher editor or a more assertive ghostwriter or both, and Frank Murphy’s The Last Protest, about Lee Evans; I haven’t read Murphy’s book but on the basis of his previous two I know it has to be excellent.)