Tommie Smith had achieved virtually all that an athlete could hope to accomplish on the track, but as a coach and professor at Santa Monica College (SMC), he was able to experience a different type of success.
Smith, 61, rose to stardom as a track and field athlete when he won a gold medal in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City with a world-record time of 19.83 seconds.
But it was his action after earning the gold medal that brought him international attention and cemented his name in Olympics history.
Smith and teammate John Carlos, who won the Olympic bronze medal in the 200 meters, both raised their fist in a Black Power salute during the medal ceremony, which is still considered one of the most memorable Olympics moments.
After retiring as a track athlete, Smith, who had set seven individual world records and several relay world records during his career, continued his love of the sport as a coach at SMC.
Now, 27 years after moving to Santa Monica to become a college track coach and physical education professor, Smith has decided to retire from the college, effective Thursday, June 30th, and relocate to the South with his wife, Delois.
“I thought it was time to move on for a lot of reasons,” said Smith, who will continue to stay involved in the sport.
“I just needed a break.”
Santa Monica College honored Smith for his contributions, along with other school retirees, at a recognition breakfast at the school Wednesday, June 15th.
San Jose State University, Smith’s alma mater, also plans to honor Smith’s career by unveiling a statue of him at the university. Smith has also been given an honorary doctorate in humane letters from San Jose State.
Smith said that during his era at SMC, he was never granted a sabbatical and the responsibilities as coach of both men’s track and field and cross-country teams was “a year-round deal.”
Most college track teams would probably consider it a dream to have a coach with Smith’s background, but Smith said that during his time at SMC, he was “not just a track coach.”
“Education was my priority, not just making athletes run fast,” he said.
While Smith experienced global success as an athlete, being a college track coach and professor offered him different kinds of opportunities.
“The greatest moments were seeing the athletes and students leave classes with an appreciation for education,” he said about being at SMC.
When Smith initially arrived at SMC he was coach of both men’s and women’s cross-country and track teams, but that became too demanding and nine years ago he switched to just the men’s teams.
As a coach, Smith said the aspect of the role he enjoyed most was dealing with athletes on a mental and physical basis.
Many track coaches aim to lead programs at four-year schools where they may be more likely to have a chance to coach the next rising star, but Smith said he was just fine with his job at SMC.
With his impressive background as an athlete, Smith was able to carry his knowledge and experience into his role as coach.
“I took what I was feeling as an athlete and instilled it into my profession,” he said. “I wanted to be a total athlete.”
While Smith tried to instill the desire to win in his athletes, he also taught that education and sports must be balanced.
“I’m most proud of my ability to sit down with athletes and talk their language,” he said. “It was important to make sure that I could communicate with an athlete and make them believe in me.”
Smith may be ready to move on from his position at SMC, but he said he will certainly miss the city and college where he spent nearly 30 years of his life.
Smith was born in Clarksville, Texas in 1944 and his interest in running began as early as childhood.
“I enjoyed the physical contacts with nature,” Smith said of his interest in running. “I always used my physical attributes to get around.”
It didn’t take long for Smith to learn he had a knack for speed, and he quickly found his niche in sprinting with his six-foot-three frame, which enabled him to fly down the track.
His natural talents in the sport helped take him to San Jose State University where he won the national collegiate title in the 220-yard run in 1967.
Smith began to taste success early at San Jose State, but it was when he made the 1968 U.S. Olympic team that he would be on his way to becoming an international star.
In the 200-meter run at the Mexico City Olympics, Smith sprinted to the top of the world with his gold medal and world-record-breaking performance.
Winning the gold medal was “insurmountable” because the 1968 Olympics were “very politically pressured” due to the Vietnam War and other events, he said.
Smith and teammate John Carlos used their medal ceremony as an opportunity to stand against racism by raising a fist in the air during the National Anthem.
Although the event remains one of the most memorable in Olympics history, the action prompted the Olympic Committee to bar the men from competing in other events.
Smith said that no one could have predicted that the action would still have an impact on today’s society.
“That one incident in particular stood out because it’s still a problem,” he said.
Although nearly four decades have passed since Smith and Carlos raised their fist in the Olympics, many of the beliefs they were trying to express then still have meaning today, he said.
“There is law and it pertains to everyone and don’t put yourself above or under it because you are another color,” he said. “We need to work with each other in spite of our differences.”
By winning the gold medal at the Olympics, Smith was able to shine at track and field’s greatest stage. Track and field today remains one of the very few sports without organized professionals, but the sport is put in the spotlight during the Olympics, he said.
“It’s obviously one of the biggest sports in the Olympic games,” he said.
Smith was recognized as one of the greatest track and field athletes of all time when he was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1978. He was inducted into the California Black Sports Hall of Fame in 1996, and received the Sportsman of the Millennium Award in 1999.
Now that Smith has retired from SMC, he plans to take time to travel and make speeches around the world.
Even though Smith will take some needed time off, he will “without a doubt” stay involved in the sport that has been such a large part of his life and allowed him to reach the top.
“It felt good to take something that God gave me and make something of it,” he said.