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Black power: 40 years of progress
4 decades since the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics, Obama becomes president.
Last Modified: 20 Jan 2009 21:51 GMT

History in the making: Tommie Smith and John Carlos give the black power salute [GALLO/GETTY]

When he stood on the victory stand in Mexico City, his head bowed and his fist raised, Tommie Smith did not allow himself to think about racial progress in the United States.

He did not think of a time when a black man would be elected president or when Smith himself, once-reviled, would be honoured on a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.

"I didn't think about what was possible, or what wasn't," Smith said on Monday, more than 40 years after he was exiled from the Olympics for raising a Black Power salute on the medal stand.

"I didn't think getting off the podium was possible for me at the time, with all the death threats I had received."

Controversial times

Smith won the 200 metres in world-record time at the 1968 Games, then was
expelled from the Games along with bronze medallist John Carlos when they bowed their heads during the Star-Spangled Banner and raised their gloved fists in protest.

They returned home to threats and found themselves ostracised.

Four decades later, Smith was in Boston to be honoured during the NBA Celtics' game against the Phoenix Suns and to be inducted into the "True Heroes of Sport" Hall of Fame at the Northeastern Centre for Sport and Society along with Carlos.

On the eve of Barack Obama's presidential inauguration, Smith saw his protest as part of a movement that isn't quite finished.

"It means somebody heard my steps - besides people in the races I ran against," Smith said.

"It's a great stride forward, just because we have a person with hue, and with an African-American background.

"That doesn't mean our job is over; it means it's just begun.

"I don't mean people of colour, I mean everybody in the nation."

Big sacrifice

Smith met with the team captains before the game, then raised his eyes to look at the US flag on the video screen during the national anthem.

Carlos could not make the game because of a speaking engagement, but his wife, Charlene, was recognised in his absence.

"I'm not a big believer that just because you play good golf or good basketball doesn't mean you have to be the spokesman for the race," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said.

"(But) I like people like that, who have given something else to the sport.

"They were blackballed from life.

"They didn't get jobs. That was as big a sacrifice as you could make."

The Celtics, who play in Miami on Wednesday, took a team vote to fly out early on Tuesday morning so they could arrive in time to see the inauguration on TV, even though Rivers had offered to tape it for them. (Ray Allen had tickets and was planning to be in Washington, D.C., for the ceremony.)

"They said, 'No, we want to see it live. We think it's that important,'" Rivers said.

"One of them said, 'Twenty or 30 years from now, I want to say I saw him speak live when he came in.'

"I guess it will be like JFK in a lot of ways. I'm glad our guys have the awareness of real life."

Meeting Smith was, for some of the players, a similar thrill.

"For him to tell his story now, and to show the progress as a people on a whole that we've made in our society - I was just inspired with him just being in the room," Celtics forward Kevin Garnett said.

"The state of the world, and where it was, and what they did - it was monumental.

"And I think it will always be monumental.

"It was a very key moment in sports and in life."

NBA legend Garnett was 'inspired' by Smith and Carlos [EPA]
Players humbled

When Rivers invited Smith to the locker room after the game, he wondered how many of his twenty something players would recognise the 64-year-old Olympic champion.

But rookie J.R. Giddens, who's 23, went over to Smith before the game to introduce himself.

After asking his age, Smith gave a big smile.

"Whenever I run into guys like I will tonight, I will tell them that the game has just begun.

"Although yours ended, you have another, lifelong game.

"It's called the future,'' Smith said.

"This is a new turn, and this turn can be remembered more than anybody in any race, especially me in the 200 metres.

"So we've got to keep on going," he said.

"The race is on."

Source:
Agencies
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