On Sept. 3 during this year's World Student Games in Tokyo, a Japanese reporter asked Tommie Smith, "In the United States, are the Negroes now equal to the whites in the way they are treated?" His obvious answer was, "No". The American Negro sprinter was then asked, "What about the possibility of (US) Negroes boycotting the 1968 Olympics?", a question probably prompted by comedian Dick Gregory's request—made at least partially in deference to the stripping of Muhammad Al's world heavyweight boxing title—that such an act be considered by Olympic prospects. Tommie's reply was, "Depending upon the situation, you cannot rule out the possibility that we (US) Negro athletes might boycott the Olympic Games."
This was the first occasion that Tommie Smith had been asked to reflect upon his thoughts concerning a boycott - either publicly or privately. The only previous publicly circulated statement on the boycott question by any American track and field athlete came from Ralph Boston, who, while he expressed a belief that it would not serve any purpose, did not categorically deny the possibility of such a development.
The world's most prolific global record holder has since denied that he is actively leading or advocating a boycott and has rebuked the idea that any outside individual or group from the black ranks has approached him. Tommie has affirmed that any withdrawal of Negro athletes from the Mexico Olympics would primarily come as a result of discussions among the athletes themselves.
The whole matter was further blown out of proportion when it was learned that Tommie and teammate Lee Evans were members of the executive committee for the United Black Students for Action (UBSA) at San Jose State, whose organization sought equality in housing, membership in social groups and in athletics during the first week of school this fall.
Pressmen the world over rushed to their typewriters to picture Tommie as a militant Negro leader or as an athletic stooge for extremist black groups and promptly scorned the merits of a boycott. What he has said, in effect, is two-fold: (1) I am concerned about the problems facing my race here and now, and (2) the Negro athletes might conclude that boycotting the Olympics would be an effectual tool in our battle for racial equality. No one at this stage knows whether a boycott will be forthcoming, and neither Tommie nor Lee is willing to conjecture at this time as to the possibility that it would actually transpire.
Talk to them, and you'll learn that their desire to participate in the Games is intense. They would have perhaps more to gain by winning a gold medal than the next white guy. And so, you must come to the question, what is it they feel so strongly about that they would sacrifice considerable personal glory and why would they consider jeopardizing their track careers? Reams of copy have been devoted to the possibility of such a boycott—and much of it based on misinformation--but little of it has dealt with the question of WHY the blacks would forfeit an opportunity to compete in the world's most important athletic event that many of them have already devoted countless hours striving to reach.
Thus, I invited Tommie and Lee to my apartment to express into an unbiased tape-recorder their views through a series of questions which I had hoped would shed some light on the confusion which has ensued since Sept. 3 and would unearth some of the deep-seated feelings which might result in US black athletes taking such an action as boycotting the Olympics.
The transcription that follows represents the opinions of two Negroes, who through personal insight, education, athletic achievement and world travel are becoming aware of the problems faced by the US black people and who are motivated and prepared to accept the responsibility of sacrificing their own personal achievement for a cause (not necessarily athletic boycott) they believe would aid in the cause of racial equality. As two non-militant, non-extremist Negroes, they are simply verbalizing the feelings of resentment and dissatisfaction perhaps typical of many of their brothers. As two prominent Negro athletes, their opinions about the possibility and effectiveness of a boycott do not necessarily represent the attitudes or desires of other Olympic Negro hopefuls.
Tommie and Lee, of course, are no strangers to the world of track nuts. On the strength of their track exploits alone, there are few athletes whose names are better known to the casual track fan. Between them, they claim at least portions of 11 world records.
Tommie, now 23 and still a student at San Jose State though without further track eligibility, holds world records at 200-meters and 220-yards straightaway (19.5), 200-meters and 220-yards turn (20.0), and has marks pending in the 400-meters (44.5) and 440-yards (44.8) as well as indoor marks in the 400-meters and 440-yards (46.2). Both Tommie and Lee ran on their school's world record 800-meter and 880-yard relay (1:22.1) and on the US national team that claims the world standard in the 1600-meter relay (2:59.6). They also ran on the San Jose State team that bettered the American standard in the mile relay (3:93.5).
Lee, three years younger and a junior in eligibility, ranked number one in the world last year in the quarter mile by T&FN. His 44.9 for 400-meters is equal second best of all-time. He had lost only to Tommie (in the world record 400/440) this year until injured in Europe. Neither has competed on an Olympic team though both have taken foreign tours with US teams.
Because these pages are devoted to athletics, we must necessarily limit the discussion that developed to those aspects that at least indirectly relate to track and field. Both Tommie and Lee have read this report in its entirety and at least concur as to its factual content. Whether or not you agree with the merits of a US Negro boycott of the 1968 Olympics, you should find the reasons that would motivate such an action revealing.
QUESTION: Has there been any single major event which has prompted the suggestion that Negroes boycott the Olympics? What role did the stripping of Muhammad Ali's boxing title and Dick Gregory's subsequent request that Negroes boycott the Games play in the current thinking?
EVANS: What Dick Gregory said doesn't have much to do with what I feel. I think that many Negroes are becoming aware of what's happening. In high school, I didn't know what was coming off, but in college I have become aware and concerned. Of course, what they did to Ali affects my opinion. I just don't dig some of the things that are happening.
QUESTION: What is the objective of such a movement? What do you and others hope can be achieved with a boycott? Do you think any concrete results can be achieved? Or is it merely symbolic?
EVANS: In terms of what I have put into the sport, I think that I will be really hurt, But, then you begin thinking about what the Negro has been going through in this country. When you come back from the Olympics with a gold medal, you might be high on the hog for a month, but after that you would be just another guy. Look at Bob Richards on TV. Why don't they have Bob Hayes or Henry Carr advertising on TV? If they had them advertising Wheaties, some of the white people in the south might stop purchasing their product. As for myself, I would be most interested in seeing something done now so that things would be different by the 1972 Olympics.
SMITH: There have been a lot of marches, protests and sit-ins on the situation of Negro ostracism in the US. And I don't think that this boycott of the Olympics would stop the problem, but I think people will see that we will not sit on our haunches and take this sort of stuff. We are a race of proud people and want to be treated as such. Our goal would not be to just improve conditions for ourselves and teammates, but to improve things for the entire Negro community.
You must regard this suggestion as only another step in a series of movements. Maybe discrimination won't stop in the next 10 years but it will represent another important development. As far as being spit on, being stepped on, being bitten by dogs, the first dog that bites me I'm going to bite back. We're not going to wait for the white man to think of something else to do against us - as in politics which is currently working against us. And it doesn't do any good to put an Uncle Tom into high position. I have worked for a long time for the Olympics, and I would hate to lose all that. But I think that boycotting the Olympics for a good cause is strong enough reason not to compete.
EVANS: I think Negroes are realizing that the white man doesn't go by his own rules, such as in civil rights. To the extent that I think things would be different for the American Negro by 1972, I am willing to consider boycotting. We are men first and athletes second. Professional athletes are even quitting now because of prejudice.
QUESTION: What prompted you, Tommie, to comment about the possibility of a boycott in Japan?
SMITH: My comments in Japan came as a result of quite a bit of listening and reading and thinking for myself. The reporter asked me about the possibility of a boycott. I told him that there is a chance, and the reason was literally because of the ostracism of the US Negro. I had made no comment prior to then. I was not motivated to comment as the result of anything Ralph Boston or Dick Gregory had said.
QUESTION: Is there any group or individual behind the proposal for a boycott?
SMITH: I couldn't say, but no one has approached me. It's up to the Negro athletes to decide, and we have not met as a group to discuss the boycott. There will be a Black Youth Conference in Los Angeles. November 23, on which occasion we will discuss the possibilities with athletes from other sports as well. This meeting will not include all the major track and field athletes, but I think we will draw a lot of conclusions. Again, I'm not advocating the boycott.
QUESTION: How serious is the possibility of a boycott? What are the chances that it will transpire?
EVANS: There is a chance it will happen. But it just depends. The guys in California would give up the opportunity to compete; they'd hate to but then you've got to do something. But then there are the athletes from the other 49 states. I really want to go to the Olympics, but I'll pass it up if I have to--for a just cause.
SMITH: I think a close enough decision will develop at this meeting to know what will happen.
EVANS: If everyone is willing to do it, I'm sure we're going to do it.
QUESTION: Of the Negro athletes you've talked with, what percent would you say support or would support a boycott?
EVANS: You have to go to different sections of the country. I think in California, it would be 75% right now. But if you go to the south or southwest these are the guys who are catching the most hell in the streets and they just don't understand the need for a boycott. The schools in the south simply aren't the same as in the west. So, these guys aren't aware of what's happening. The schools don't get them to thinking, and the guys don't read about the problems. They don't think about their jobs and what their parents were doing. They're just thinking about themselves and what the Olympics would mean.
SMITH: Some of these guys from the south look at you funny. But look at it this way. How would you like it if you said something in California and you got back to your home in the south to find a double barrel shotgun sticking in your front door? I think the guys are more afraid than anything.
QUESTION: What has motivated your current activist roles?
SMITH: Like Lee says, as a senior in high school I looked upon my ability as something no one else had, and looking at this ability alone I neglected to realize there might be something else to life than just track. It's only been in the last two years that I have begun to see that there are problems, and that I must learn to cope with them. And I'm starting by looking at myself.
QUESTION: How have your opinions altered in the past six weeks since going on record about all this?
SMITH: It has forced me to read and think about the problems of this day and age—even more than six months ago. If this individual in Japan would not have asked me about the possibility of a boycott in 1968, I might not have begun really thinking about this specific suggestion. All of a sudden something suddenly flashed into my mind. Is there something to it? What is this individual asking me? Am I going to take the ostracism I'm taking now, or if this Japanese knew this, where did it come from?
QUESTION: Could you give up athletics tomorrow?
SMITH: I would give up athletics tomorrow if the cause were strong enough. I would give up athletics in a minute to die for my people.
QUESTION: What about the challenges that you, Tom, have lost your humility with respect to what athletics has given you? What is your reaction to columns such as the one by Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times wherein he called you a downy-cheeked kid who has an exaggerated opinion of his own athletic importance?
SMITH: There are some people who are pen happy. As far as Murray's standpoint, I think he is looking at it all on a narrow line and not objectively. I don't think most writers are like this, but Murray is. Because he has said something about me that wasn't true. One quotation in particular bothered me, and that was that I was advocating a boycott. And then there were a lot of smaller things that added up to one big lie. To the average individual, it made me look like something lower than a rat.
EVANS: It made Tommie look like militant Tommie. As soon as you become aware of what is happening to your people, you are considered militant. UBSA is considered a militant group because we got things done on the campus. That campus is a lot better now. And other campuses could be as well if they'd just do something.
QUESTION: Why boycott only the Olympics? Why single them out for boycotting, while continuing to compete for a school which has been charged with discrimination and in a country where it exists?
EVANS: The school is just a part of this country. So, I think we should hit at the top. And this country—I can't dig why the US voted to permit South Africa to compete in the Olympics. That was what I was told, anyway. I'm definitely going to discuss this matter at this conference. They send this cat Paul Nash to run here in the US. If I went to South Africa, they wouldn't let me run in no damn meet with Paul Nash. But he can come here and run with us. I'm supposed to be an American, but I'm not treated as one.
Coach Stan Wright wrote Tommie a letter telling him that he should consider himself an American first, a Negro second. But nobody else considers me an American first. You read any kind of book or magazine. Even Track & Field News says Negro Stan Wright. The first thing you're told or see is that you're a Negro, but still you're supposed to be an American. If you publish a picture, people can look at it and tell if you're Negro. So, you don't have to mention it.
SMITH: What kind of logic is this to let Paul Nash come to America to compete for South Africa. Lee or (Ralph) Boston or myself cannot go as Americans to compete in South Africa. Now, if we are Americans, if (Jim) Ryun and I are both Americans, why can't I go to South Africa and compete in the same meets? If we can't go there, why can they come here?
EVANS: This is where you can hit them the hardest. This is one of the major areas where the US gets its international sports propaganda. The Olympics are a big thing, and the press help to create this. So, if the people want us Negroes) to help promote US sports propaganda, they can help us too.
SMITH: Why should we boycott the Olympics instead of the meets at our college? A good percentage of the Negroes are in college because of a scholarship. Now, if we discontinue athletics, the scholarship almost means our lives to us. I got my education through a scholarship. If I had discontinued competition, it would have meant that my scholarship would have been taken away. Therefore, I wouldn't have gotten an education and gotten as far as I have, and so I wouldn't know what I'm talking about. Education is a prelude to a later advancement in life: knowledge. Therefore, unless you have the financial background, discontinuing athletics wouldn't be advantageous to any cause. You have less to lose and more to gain by boycotting the Olympics than at San Jose State—because this is the way you have hit the hardest.
QUESTION: When did you sense a change in your opinions?
SMITH: It began when I started walking and thinking I am a Negro. I wish I could give you a definite date. I said, here's a white man, I'm a Negro. He can walk into this store, why can't I? It really started last semester, and then Tokyo helped. I took a class in black leadership; it started me to thinking. What the hell is going on in the US? I'm a human. What kind of rights do I have? What kind of rights don't I have? Why can't I have these rights?
EVANS: I started reading. That's what got me to thinking.
QUESTION: Have you experienced any blatant or subtle discrimination on international track teams?
EVANS: [Lee related two incidences concerning John Carlos and George Anderson at the US-Commonwealth meet which he felt were either the result of misunderstandings or were sufficiently remedied so as not to be classifiable as acts of discrimination.] But we were going to boycott that meet as a Negro block if they didn't use the first four finishers in the American women's 100-yard dash at the AAU in the relay—who all happened to be Negroes. They intended to substitute Dee DeBusk for Mattiline Render. But as it turned out, Barbara Farrell got injured, so both Dee and Mattiline got to run. And that saved the situation.
QUESTION: How do you professors at San Jose State regard you in general?
EVANS: They know us as the fastest nigger on campus. They only talk to us because we're athletes. They don't talk to the next Negro who passes by.
SMITH: Often, they say congratulations to me. I say, "Thank you. What did I do?" I say, "On my marriage or on a test?" And they say, "No, on your world record." They never talk about my marriage or academics.
EVANS: You are a fast nigger. They don't say nigger but that's what—they mean.
SMITH: There's one coach who doesn't think that the Negroes can have any sentimental value. And when he looks at you, he regards you only as an athlete. And he tries to find the easiest classes for you so you can get through college. Now, how the hell are you going to get an education with 15 units of badminton?
EVANS: You get a sheet from them that says what it takes to get through college.
SMITH: I'm taking a couple of courses that I have no interest in. But I have to take them. Look at ROTC, for example. As a result of my lack of interest, I'm not getting good grades. Why should I go to Viet Nam and fight for this country and come back when my equality will still be half taken away? If I could come back here just like my white friends, I'd be happy to be a lieutenant in the Army.
The following statements by Tommie and Lee were issued to the press at large, and will serve as their concluding comments to this interview.
EVANS: My own position on a boycott is this: the Olympics are something that I have dreamed of participating in ever since I first learned to run. This does not, however, mean participation at any price. And my own manhood is one of the prices that I am not willing to pay. A second and more important price that I am not under any circumstances willing to pay is that of slamming a potential door to freedom in the face of black people. If this door can be opened by my not participating, then I will not participate.
SMITH: I want to clarify several points that I am alleged to have made at a recent speaking engagement in Lemoore, California. Several points that I made were taken completely out of context. The Olympic Games are and always have been of extreme importance and significance to me. I did make the statement that I would give my right arm to participate and win a gold medal, but it was taken out of context as I am not willing to sacrifice the basic dignity of my people to participate in the Games.
I am quite willing not only to give up participation in the Games but my life as well if necessary to open a door by which the oppression and injustices suffered by black people in the US might be alleviated. If the group decision is to boycott, I will participate wholeheartedly.