Tommy Smith is most associated with the Mexico Olympics of 1968. Tommy Smith, along with John Carlos, made the legendary Black Power salute which gave international publicity to the civil rights movement – but also got them expelled from the games.
Tommy Smith was born on June 6th, 1944 in Clarksville, Texas. As a young child, the future Olympic 200m champion, survived a serious bout of pneumonia. Joining San Jose State University, Smith started to make an impact in athletics. He was selected for the American team for the1968 Mexico Olympic games – competing in the 200 meters. Smith was one of the favourites for this event. While at San Jose University, he had become friends with Harry Edwards, a member of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). This had tried to organise a boycott of the games but many athletes did not support this.
Smith won the 200 meters final and equaled the world record time of 19.8 seconds – a time few athletes have bettered now in an era of professional athletics. At the medal ceremony, both men participated in a Black Power salute. Smith and Carlos were expelled from the games and returned to America. To many in the civil rights movement they were heroes – others saw both men as unpatriotic troublemakers who had brought shame on the American nation for tarnishing the Olympic Games. John Carlos claims that both men received huge support from the less well-off African-Americans but that black business leaders and black political groups were less than supportive.
However, what they had done was to internationalise the civil rights issue in America in what was voted the sixth most memorable television image of the Twentieth Century.
In 1978, Smith was made a member of the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. He was a coach for the 1995 US World Indoor Athletics Championships team in Barcelona. Smith currently works at Santa Monica College and is head of the Men’s Cross-Country and Track and Field Coach.