For a spell there in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when he broke or tied world records in distances from 60 yards to 200 meters, John Carlos might’ve been the fastest man in the world. As a teen he had outrun police while carrying 50 pounds of food on his shoulders (he fancied himself Robin Hood, stealing from boxcars to feed his poor neighbors). The Harlem of his youth was a cradle of social change — he knew Malcolm X up until his assassination, and was strongly influenced by a meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. — and by the time he made the U.S. Olympic team in 1968, he and fellow sprinter Tommie Smith had determined they would use the platform, literally, to describe how black Americans were treated. On the medal stand after the 200-meter dash, in which Smith won gold and Carlos won bronze, they wore black socks to symbolize poverty, beads to symbolize lynching and, held aloft in a display of what Carlos called “strength and unity,” single gloved fists.
“If you look at the pictures,” Carlos writes in his new memoir, The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World, “Tommie’s fist and back are so straight it looks like he was drawn with a protractor. My arm is slightly bent. That was because I wanted to make sure in case someone rushed us, I could throw down a hammer punch to protect us. We had just received so many threats leading up to that point that I refused to be defenseless at the moment of truth.”
You can also see, in the Associated Press photo of that moment, Peter Norman, the Aussie who won silver that night, wearing a button to match the Americans’ that reads, “Olympic Project for Human Rights,” in solidarity with their cause. All three sprinters became pariahs. Smith and Carlos had, in the view of the Los Angeles Times, given a “Nazi-like Salute,” while the Chicago Tribune called it “an insult to their countrymen.” In a Chicago newspaper Brent Musburger wrote that “a pair of black-skinned storm troopers” had aired “dirty clothing before the entire world during a fun-and-games tournament.” Avery Brundage, the chair of the International Olympic Committee and one of the true shitheels of the mid-20th century (see: Nazi sympathizing at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, opposing women as Olympians), spread word that he had revoked Smith’s and Carlos’s medals (Carlos calls this a lie) and had them evicted from the Olympic Village.
After short stints playing for the Philadelphia Eagles and in the Canadian Football League, during which he shredded his knee on early-70s turf, Carlos went broke and got divorced. Since 1985 he has worked as a high school guidance counselor in Palm Springs, California. In 2005 San Jose State University honored him and Smith with a 20-foot-tall bronze statue of their pose on the medal stand. Strangers still occasionally greet Carlos with that iconic raised fist.
Dave Zirin, the author of the Edge of Sports column in the Nation, collaborated with Carlos on the book, due out Oct. 1 from Haymarket Books. I reached Zirin on his cell as he was loitering in an airport in Nebraska. We talked about John Carlos, regrettable Brent Musburger quotes and what he believes is a resurgence of politics in sport.
Sam Eifling: I remember seeing that photo of the medal stand in 10th-grade history, but I was amazed in the book at how much back story there was. How did you and John Carlos meet and decide to write this book?
Zirin: Like you, I saw that image at a young age and it stuck with me. It tattooed itself on my brain, just to see the drama of it. When I read about it in “The Revolt of the Black Athlete” and saw the documentary “Fists of Freedom,” I was absolutely blown away at how much was going on there. Like the fact the black gloves were bought by Tommie Smith just so he wouldn’t have to touch Avery Brundage when they shook hands, that they were wearing black socks and beads, and Peter Norman wearing a solidarity patch. There’s so much there in that moment.
I wanted to use the fact that I had a sports column to get in touch with them for the 35th anniversary in 2003. John Carlos had an old, unkempt web site. I call the number on the site and I hear, “Hello?”
We spoke and I found him to be unbelievably eloquent and honest, and frankly suffering. And at the same time having no regrets about having done it. We kept in contact, some of that was aided by the fact this article I did went viral online. We spoke on some panels together on sports and politics, sports and resistance. People in the audience were blown away at how eloquent this guy is.
When he asked me about doing a book I said hell yeah. I’m excited to go on the road with him and speak in front of audiences. He’s amazing.
Eifling: In the research for the book were there any facts that leapt out at you? Did you have any “oh-shit” moments in your reporting?
Zirin: I was gratified to learn that it was a window for me — his childhood, what it was like to grow up in Harlem in the 1960s and the window to the black experience, to me. John Carlos’ father was a World War I veteran — not World War II, as you would expect, but World War I. He was born in 1898. John Carlos is a generation removed from slavery, and Harlem was a burgeoning powerful culture of its own. This is something that speaks to a much larger story. It means you’re part of something much bigger than yourself. That to me was a serious oh-shit moment.
Eifling: It’s amazing to see how different the country was then. I can’t even imagine some of the media covering Smith and Carlos’ protest the way they did in 1968. That Brent Musburger line calling them “black-skinned storm troopers” blew me away. They were, what, 22 at the time? They were defenseless.
Zirin: I almost said that was my oh-shit moment as well. To me, an oh-shit moment was that John Carlos was still mad at Brent Musburger, and almost didn’t go to the ESPYs in 2008 because ESPN was employing Brent Musburger at that time. He believes with a lot of support that Brent Musburger built his career on that statement. So Brent Musburger gets riches and success and Carlos gets poverty and misery. Yet at the same time, people say you were on the right side of history and all that, and Carlos says, “I can’t eat the right side of history.”
Eifling: It seems like we’re a long way from Smith and Carlos and Muhammad Ali, but I was glad to see in the afterward that you think we’re returning in an era in which athletes use their platform for social causes. It’s a tough spot for them — almost by definition, professional athletes are young, and easy to dismiss. But now you have the Phoenix Suns wearing the “Los Suns” jerseys in the middle of the immigration battles and the Green Bay Packers coming out against anti-union action in Wisconsin.
Zirin: It’s not the 1960s, but it’s not the 1990s either. It’s function of social media, and athletes don’t live on Planet Jock anymore — war and poverty can touch their lives as well. Look at how many athletes were affected by Hurricane Katrina. I didn’t hear any actors or musicians come out against the national frat party atmosphere that followed Osama bin Laden’s assassination. But you did see Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Douglas-Roberts and Kevin Durant saying “I don’t celebrate when someone dies.” There’s media access that wasn’t available for them 15 years ago. We live in a world where there are Osama bin Ladens and there are trillion-dollar wars. There’s only so long you’re going to see athletes pretend they’re not a part of it.