Tommie Smith stood on the lowest of the three award platforms on the floor of the Los Angeles Sports Arena. The names of Jim Kemp, the surprising winner of the 440-yard dash at the Los Angeles Invitational Track Meet, and Vince Matthews, who placed second, were announced. Then Smith's name echoed from the loudspeakers, and the crowd booed. Smith took the attaché case that was the third-place award, smiled and turned to shake Kemp's hand. Then he paused, tall and erect in his blue sweat suit, as Kemp, looking slightly embarrassed, hurried off the winners' stand. Meet officials and other athletes frowned and stared into the crowd in disbelief. Only Smith seemed unperturbed as the booing continued.
"I think I expected it to happen," he said afterwards, "and in some ways maybe I'm kind of glad. I think I would have been disappointed if I had gotten no reaction from people like these. If they felt upset enough to boo me I guess I must have had a pretty strong effect on their consciences."
Indoor-track audiences have been known to voice their displeasure with star athletes who have bad nights, but Smith knew very well that he was not being booed because he had taken 50 seconds to run a distance that he has handled in indoor world-record time of 46.2. After all, Bob Seagren had failed to win the pole vault, and Randy Matson didn't even make it to the final round in the shotput, yet neither of these world-record holders was booed. Smith, on the other hand, heard scattered boos when he was introduced before the race and then deafening cheers when it became clear that he was losing—the only time he has ever been beaten in an indoor quarter mile.
Smith and his close friend, Lee Evans, are among the leaders of the proposed Negro boycott of this year's Olympics, to protest racial discrimination in the U.S. Few athletes, and fewer reporters and track fans, have agreed with them. In the two months since Tommie declared himself for the boycott he has listened to many calm, rational arguments against his position. "Most people want to advise us," Smith said. "They say that they agree with our complaints about discrimination but that we're fighting it the wrong way. We still think that we're using the best means we have." Last weekend, in the most dramatic moment of an otherwise unspectacular meet, he confronted the first raw emotional reaction to what he is doing.
January 29, 1968
"I heard the boos as I lined up," he said, "but I didn't stop to think about them. I had other things to worry about." His main worry was his starting position in the inside lane, a disadvantage in the indoor 440. From the staggered start the inside runner must race at full speed into and around the first turn or else lose the pole position to an outside man and risk getting boxed in.
Kemp, a talented runner who is at his best indoors, burst off the blocks in the third lane, went all-out and beat Smith around the turn. "When I looked to the inside," Kemp said, "I didn't see Tommie. So I cut over to the pole and just kept running."
For the rest of the race, people waited for Tommie to turn on his great speed, but he never had a real chance to get going. "Twice when I wanted to move I was boxed in," he said. "They certainly didn't do it intentionally. It's just the way indoor track is." Smith finally eased back and tried to go around the leaders on the outside, but he lost ground on the turns and failed to close very much on Kemp and Matthews.
"I heard all that wild cheering as I came toward the wire," said Kemp. "Usually you hear that when somebody is closing very fast. I looked for Tommie, and I was surprised when I saw that he wasn't catching me."
Kemp's time was a slow 49.5. "I think that new Tartan track may have been a little slower than regular boards," he said, "but I'm thrilled to beat Tommie no matter how slow the race was."
He became a little less thrilled when he realized that all the cheering was less for his clever race than it was for Smith's defeat. A 23-year-old Negro from Birmingham, Ala., Kemp was obviously uncomfortable in his role as a kind of substitute white hope of the crowd. "That booing was terrible," he said. "I respect Tommie as an athlete, and I respect his opinions. I'm just sorry that a good race has to be turned into a political thing."
Kemp has remained out of the boycott debates. "First of all, I'm in the Army, and I'm in no position to say anything. Besides, I don't know enough about it to get involved." His background gives him a unique view of racial problems. "I grew up with a white boy as my best friend," he said. "I know that sounds strange in Alabama, but we happened to have parents who raised us to think all people are the same. We were just country kids who never were taught to discriminate or hate. I know that the problems Tommie is concerned about do exist, but I've never been close enough to them to feel the way he does."
Smith took the loss gracefully. "I'm not that disappointed," he said. "I met two very fast men, and I got beat. That's all there was to it. I guess I can accept it more easily than a lot of the people in the crowd could."
The race was Tommie's second of the winter. He had won a slow 300-yard dash in San Francisco two weeks earlier and had been cheered by the crowd. "Maybe the people in San Francisco know me a little better," he said, "so they can respect my right to speak out on something I believe in. Down here, obviously, the people didn't feel that I deserved that respect."
In postrace interviews Smith was again offered free advice along with the reporters' questions. One man gave him a long, soft-spoken lecture about Negro professional athletes who have decided "to live their own lives and not get involved with other people." Tommie listened patiently and then said, "I just don't see it that way. Those guys can take their big money and ignore the people who don't have anything. I can't help seeing what's happening to others." At the moment he is particularly worried about what has happened to his friend and co-leader of the boycott movement, Professor Harry Edwards of San Jose State. "Harry has been 'under investigation,' " he said, "and they held back his salary for a while. If he can go through all that, I guess I can stand a few boos."
A widespread Olympic boycott now seems very remote. The athletes who proposed it will have another meeting during the spring season, and it is possible that Smith and Evans eventually will abandon their lonely crusade because of lack of agreement from enough other Negroes. But as of now neither has changed his mind. Over and over in Los Angeles, Smith was asked if he wasn't having doubts about the whole thing. "No," he answered, slowly and carefully, "I haven't had any second thoughts at all. Incidents like the one tonight only make me more convinced that I'm doing the right thing. I realize now that a lot of people are hoping I'll lose races so that they can stop paying attention to what I have to say. But I won't let them bother me. I'll go on and try to win and stand up for what I believe in.