By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) – More than 50 years after they were kicked off the U.S. team and sent home from the 1968 Mexico City Olympics for their raised-fist protest, Tommie Smith and John Carlos received a long-awaited moment of redemption on Friday.
The former sprinters, once rebuked as unpatriotic for using the Olympic platform to make a political statement, received the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s (USOPC) 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 USOPC 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 Reuters in a telephone interview. “To realize that we can make mistakes in life and there should be no shame.
“I think the (USOPC) has come to that point.”
Smith and Carlos finished first and third, respectively, in the 200 meters 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.
Long before U.S. President Donald Trump called kneeling NFL players “sons of bitches” Smith and Carlos bore the brunt of the backlash for taking a stand against racial discrimination and that decision meant jeopardizing their careers and reputations.
But 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,” said Carlos. “One more time: no regrets whatsoever.”
The protest, which occurred amid the civil rights movement in the United States and not long after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, cost Carlos and Smith dearly.
At home they were heroes to their contemporaries, and pariahs to the establishment.
Both were suspended from the U.S. Olympic team and sent home, where they received death threats and hate mail. Carlos’s 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,” said Carlos.
For decades the former sprinters were left on the sidelines of the official U.S. Olympic movement. Their 2016 visit to the White House, along with U.S. Olympic committee leaders, marked the first official event they’d been part of since their ouster in 1968.
Carlos said his induction into the USOPC 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,” said Carlos.
“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 U.S. 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.”
But 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,” said Carlos.
“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.”
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)