Trapped in TommieSmith (see cover) is a talent struggling for recognition in his own land andthe body of a man of 6'6" or even 6'8" locked within a 6'2" frame.Perhaps those are the reasons why Smith runs so fast, why he has set seeminglyinsurmountable records in the 220 and 200 meters, why someday soon he mustsurely establish corresponding records in the quarter mile and 400 meters. Heruns, in a sense, almost out of his skin. He is, without doubt, the fastestmoving human the world has ever known, but the same elements that help topropel him so fast also serve to impede him, making his achievements all themore amazing.
Tommie Smith, ina word, does not burst. He can only uncoil after he comes out of the startingblocks. His every race is a finishing kick, all the way, great liquid strides,faster and faster, in a relentless drive. For unlike other runners, Smithreaches no peak; he is accelerating to the end. His races are not, then, managainst man or even man against clock. They are only races against distance,for he does not win so much as he catches up—can he catch the man ahead of himor will the tape loom first? Tommie Smith is the great chase.
"I run ontop," is the simple way he describes his style. This is apt, for itsuggests, as much as is possible, that he flies. It is a beautiful movement,and he is so flawlessly graceful, so insouciantly relaxed, that those who seehim for the first time invariably feel that he is loafing. In one way, hereally is. Smith treats his body more as a fine instrument, to be tuned, thanas a roaring machine that must be pounded and tooled into form.
"I think ifTommie practiced like me or Lee Evans," says Ken Shackelford, Smith'sfellow senior and quarter-miler at San Jose State, "it might break himdown. His legs would just go flat."
May 21, 1967
Smith's legs, solong and distinctive even for a runner, are also abnormal within their ownterms. The thighs take up so much vertical space that there seems to be hardlyany room left for the rest of the leg that nature traditionally allots belowthe knee. His calves further accent the impression that he is all thigh andankle. "They're so high, sometimes I think they're directly behind myknees," he says, laughing, as he does, at his wonderful peculiarities.
His hands aremassive, too. Often, when he is thinking, he lays one on top of his skull,making his head look about the size of a cantaloupe. His shoulders are thin andwide, edges, and they ride high—at least four inches above the shoulder levelof most men his size. Smith reaches up, and it is immediately apparent why hewas the leading re-bounder on the San Jose freshman basketball team before hequit the sport. And yet these advantageous anomalies are placed on a spare,taut frame. The great hands are attached to his arms by thin wrists. The facialfeatures are almost as delicate, so that sunglasses hide not just his dark eyesbut the whole countenance. Smith admits to being skinnier than all seven of hissisters and all four of his brothers. He carries less than 180 pounds, andthose churning legs that were, apparently, willed by Dan Patch begin below atapered waist of hardly 31 inches.
The mostdistinguished feature of Smith's running, however, is his high knee action."Even in high school," says Lee Evans, another teammate and the manmost likely to break the 440 record if Smith does not, "Tommie had thosehigh knees. Only then he couldn't keep them up." This Smith has learned todo under Coach Bud Winter, who has taught the high-knee, long-stride style foryears. Smith's knees seem almost to climb to his throat, then are struckforward, with the lower leg following, flicking out into a monstrous stridethat measures almost nine feet and appears only to tease the ground. He is likea man running the cakewalk.
Prancing alongso, looking as if he would be more at home in the company of Donder and Blitzenthan among mere mortals. Smith heightens the effect with his swept-backsunglasses. "People think right away I'm playing Mr. Cool," he says,"but I have good reasons. Security, for instance. I try to convince myselfthat if I can't see out too well, then nobody can see me very clearly, either.Security. I give a lot of speeches with my sunshades on."
The glasses areprescription, but with their wide stems they serve more functionally asblinders, limiting distractions from the side. "And this is somethingelse," Smith says. "On a bright day, if you don't have your sunshadeson, the sun makes you blink, so, you wrinkle your forehead, and that tightensup some muscles. Next it's likely to be your neck, and pretty soon maybe yourshoulders are all scrunched up, too. Really.
"Theimportant thing is to be relaxed—however you can. The day I set the worldrecord, the 19.5 on the 220 straightaway, what I had for breakfast, for mytraining meal, was a Coke, french fries and a banana cream pie in thecafeteria. You have to find your own relaxation. I dance a little, a few steps,right at the blocks. People see me warming up, stretching my arms out. Theythink I'm loosening muscles up or something. Man, I'm yawning."
Smith laughed athimself again. He is an engaging, wholly unpretentious young man who hasretained the best of the diffident country boy—yet grown into a confidentpublic speaker. His face is expressive and warm, but always—whether hidden bythe shades or not—it suffers a certain anonymity. As he starts to move, theeyes about him are suddenly drawn to the whole nimble body.
"Before therace, right before we get down," he says, "I give a little prayer—I'm areligious guy. You know, just real quick, and it may not help me physically orsocially or even spiritually, but maybe psychologically. The terrible thing isthe start. Because no matter what I do, right away I am behind. It is so,so...oh...." He enveloped his head in his left hand.
"Yes, that'sexactly it. Frustrating. That is exactly what it is. If someone's ahead ofme—and you know, right away there is always someone ahead of me—he has just gotto come back to me. He has to." Smith paused. "The thrill with me—thereal thrill—is the catching up.
"The catchingup. When I ran the 19.5 I remember more passing Wayne Hermen than I do hittingthe tape. The catching up. You're trying so, but all you see is him ahead, andall you can usually hear is the sound of the spikes sinking in and pulling outof the track—ca-pschick, ca-pschick, ca-pschick. I always hear that.Ca-pschick, ca-pschick. And then, at that instant I catch up, at that oneinstant, that is the only time I see my knees—and they're really up therethen.
"Anyway, alot of the race I'll run with my eyes shut. The last 60 to 80 yards of the 440or the last 20 of the 220 they're shut most of the way. I'll run five or sixsteps with them closed and then open them up just scrunched and then, quick,close them again. This way I can't see how much ground I'm covering. I justlisten to the ca-pschick, ca-pschick. I guess it's the security thing."
One of the nexttimes that Smith hits the tape—possibly even this Saturday at San Jose—he maywell finish the fastest 440 ever run. Smith and Evans, a sophomore, will befacing each other at the quarter for the first time and the 44.9 record, nowheld by Adolph Plummer, will be in double jeopardy. Smith, who last Saturdayran his 220 in 19.4 as he anchored San Jose to a world record in the 880 relay,approaches the prospective record-breaking with an assurance that nearsdisdain. It is a feeling many share with him. After all, he has already run a43.8 relay leg. "The 440 record should go," he says. "I see Adolphand kid him that the 44.9 was a humbug job anyway. You know, kind of a fluke,everything coming together right so there is a record. But now, you can't win a220 with a humbug. No one can run a 20-flat humbug."
Smith's 220-yard(and 200-meter) marks appear so secure—some Germans have figured that he wouldhave beaten Jesse Owens by 18 yards—that it is natural for him to concentrateon something new like the 440. But Winter and Smith have even more ambitiousplans. Before June 20, when Smith must report for six weeks of ROTC at FortLewis, Wash., he will have labored through what his coach labels dramatically"a calendar of opportunities."
The plot callsfor Smith to try to take every world sprint record in existence from the 100 tothe 440 (with various relay records tossed in as so much parsley). No one hasever come close to such a sweep before, and Smith is liable to be denied ithimself because of the 100. He has done 9.3, but the record, 9.1, should eludehim unless, frankly, he can manage a perfect humbug start.
Regardless, Smithis finally getting the recognition due him. Jim Bush, coach of champion UCLA,speaks simply enough:' "Smith is by far the greatest that ever lived."Coach Winter, having lived with his phenomenon, gets lost in new realms ofeuphoria each time he tries to describe him: "In the miracle class...he isnow with the Green Hornet and Superman...as smooth as cream on a dancefloor...we expect beyondness from Tommie...."
Till now, though.Winter has remained a prophet without honor in his own land. For one thing,Smith has always managed to be injured late in the season, so that he possessesnot a single U.S. title. Last year he pulled a muscle during the nationalcollegiates when Winter had him broad jumping for a few extra San Jose points.The general public, understandably, concentrated its attention on Jim Ryun,whose rise has paralleled Smith's.
This does notquite explain, however, the great lengths to which Smith has been ignored. Hewas not even nominated for the Sullivan Award, which Ryun won. This puzzlesSmith. It infuriates the Europeans, who have not been so hesitant to revere hisefforts. Several Frenchmen, for instance, spent Christmas week in San Josefilming a TV documentary on Smith. A British magazine unabashedly hailed him asthe world's greatest athlete in 1966. "Over there," Smith says,"they give me so much attention that it almost gets on my nerves."
In San Jose,Smith is seldom recognized off campus. He is not particularly ecstatic aboutthe college, which, like the city, is exploding, grown to 21,000 students witha football team crying big time. The judo team is national champion, and Winterhas had SJS track up front for two decades with sprinters like Dennis Johnsonand Ray Norton.
Smith wasrecruited by the basketball coach and did not even know Winter when he enteredcollege. Technically, he is still on a basketball-football-track scholarship,for which he gets $25 a semester for books, $85 a month for room and board, andhis tuition, which is all of $64 a semester. Smith grouses that no one at SanJose has ever offered to find him a job. The only deal he has in all the worldis to try to write his biography next year with a fellow student.
Tommie Smith wasnamed simply that when he was born, on D-day, 1944, the seventh child of JamesRichard and Dora Smith, in Acworth, Texas, a dusty crossroads near the RedRiver. He can remember the river, looking out at it from his front porch,fishing in it. Snakes, too, and walking two or three miles to school. But whenTommie was only 6, Mr. Smith bundled up his family and moved it west toopportunity. They settled in Lemoore, Calif., now a town of 3,550, which liessouth of Fresno (Evans' home town) in the heart of the verdant San JoaquinValley.
Mr. Smith got ajob as a utility man at the high school; Mrs. Smith worked as a domestic, whenshe could spare time from her family. Tommie often slept three in a bed. Therewere times when he had no lunch to take to school or other days when he gavehis lunch to one of his younger brothers or sisters. He, after all, waspopular, the big athlete, vice-president of his class, and he could alwaysborrow a sandwich from someone. "Now, some of my Negro partners, theydidn't do so good," he says. "Lemoore, it is very rich and very poor.The farmers and the tenants. A lot of the Caucasian kids would drive their GTOsto school. The school bus took us. It was that way."
But home was notlacking in some things. "I think about it now," Smith says, "I juststart thinking and I crack up laughing." There was the simple warmth of thelarge family, the crunch of searching for a place at the table, the secrets,the teasing, the anxiety (more than the envy) of waiting for an older brotherto outgrow some fading hand-me-downs. The Smiths all shared and worked for eachother. They still do.
Tommie waspicking cotton and giving the 90¢-an-hour wages to his father when he was 9 or10. He helped irrigate the land and drive heavy equipment on the farms. TheSmiths managed, not just so, but with pride. The children are spread out in agenow from 34 to 12, but there were always a few around to hunt or fish with, torun with, to sing in harmony. At one time there were seven Smith siblingssinging together in the Baptist choir.
Only Fred, theoldest, a massive, strong man who is 6'4", 230 and who boxed, has not goneto college. There are three Smiths in college now. Tommie has above-averagegrades at San Jose, where he majors in social sciences. While this is his lastyear of track eligibility, he has spread his credits so that he cannot graduateuntil next year. He has won membership in Blue Key, a national honorfraternity. And a few years ago his father bought his own farm of three or fouracres outside Lemoore.
Smith lives lessthan a block away from the San Jose gym in a second-floor garden apartment thathe shares with S.T. Saffold, a San Jose basketball star who took up footballlast fall and was promptly drafted by San Diego. This is the same sort of routeSmith may take, though he is still also considering going back to basketball.The Los Angeles Rams have already drafted Smith but promised him that they willnot press him until after the '68 Olympics. But even then Smith must begin histwo-year Army duty as a 2nd lieutenant. If he can ever play pro football—around1971, say—he figures it will be as a pass-catcher. That was his assignment inhigh school. He did not, however, catch too many passes because he would outrunthe quarterback's range before the poor guy could throw.
Smith knows onlytoo well that had his sport been any but track he would soon be signing for bigmoney. He has learned to accept that irony and not to let it nag at him. In away, his distant future is more set in his mind than his immediate one. Hewants to be an elementary schoolteacher and coach and, perhaps, eventuallybecome a principal. He genuinely enjoys being around kids, and for anotherthing, he cites the excellent on-the-job training that he obtained in his ownfamily.
Saffold and Smithare perfect roommates since neither is home enough to bother the other. (Tommiestudies almost entirely at the library.) On their building the pink paint ispeeling, but inside, if their quarters are close, they are as comfortable andas well-kept as bachelor pads tend to be. Saffold sleeps in the kitchen. Smithcurls up on a Murphy bed that pulls down out of his closet. His trophiesabound, but then, on one wall, modest but striking among all the silver, isposted a purple piece of paper. On it, in a female admirer's crisp hand, iswritten, vertically, a poetic acronym that spells out his name: Too Often MyMind In Emptiness/Slowly Moves Inward Toward Him.
Tommie makes itvery clear, though, that right now he runs track and plays the field. He wasengaged about a year ago but, in a classic example of reverse thinking, hecalled the marriage off. He was running faster and faster just at a time, hefigured, when he should have been slowing down if he were really in love.Presumably, then, the girl who finally wins Smith's heart will have to keep himboth happy and slow—and no married woman has had an assignment like that sincethe one who had to spin gold while learning Rumpelstiltskin's name.
But the questionnow is not how to slow Tommie Smith down but how fast he can go. In Oaklandthis winter on an indoor track with sharp turns, he started the 440 anchor legfor the San Jose relay team a full 20 yards back of Trinidad's superb OlympianEdwin Roberts. Smith passed Roberts with 120 yards to go. Nobody could believeit. "Before that night," Ken Shackelford says, "I had never seenhim go to his reserves, dig into the old gut barrel. You see, there is notelling what he can do if he has to. In Oakland, that was the only time in allhis life that he ever heaved after a race. You don't think he threw up afterthe 19.5, do you?"
On the contrary.Smith hardly drew a deep breath, and the magnitude of his accomplishment didnot even strike him till that night when he was trying to get to sleep. Thereare track cynics who still refuse to believe that he ran 19.5. They whine thatthe track was too short, the watches slow or the wind high. So, what will theysay when some day in a race Smith goes for his reserves and uses them, and heis not even in love, either? For Tommie Smith is already chasing beyondnesswith only ca-pschick, ca-pschick, ca-pschick in his ears.