Before trying to figure out who John Carlos is or why he is who he is, you've got to know that when he went to college he barely knew how to read. Yet, growing up in Harlem, John Carlos knew how to hustle. Now he hustles not on the corner of 143rd Street and Fifth Avenue or in Darby's pool hall, but everywhere, all the time, for acceptance, for love, for money, for success. But he demands all these things on his own terms. The reality of John Carlos is fixed within himself and it will stay that way, and he will succeed—or fail—because of it. "I hate to copy my man," he says, "but I have to agree with Ali. I've always been my own man. I've made myself. I will always do what I think is right."
But what John Carlos thinks is right keeps changing. At the Olympics, for instance, he was not only interested in winning medals but in espousing Black Power and, of course, joined Tommie Smith in the black glove demonstration. Now he is far less militant and is dedicating himself to setting world records—principally in the 100 and 220—which he could do any weekend. And he is out to get some of the white man's money. Carlos is eligible for this year's pro football draft, and the pros don't draft extremists even if they go 6'4", 202 pounds and run the 100 in 9.1.
In public, at track meets, the new Carlos plays the clown, kidding his fellow athletes, signing autographs for his fans, rapping with the crowd. After winning the 200-meter dash in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. International Freedom Games at Villanova, Pa. last month he was at the top of his form—waving an index finger to let everybody know who was No. 1, apologizing for losing the 100 earlier in the meet, patting a baby girl on the head, taking a container of orange juice from a spectator, drinking it, giving it back, then laughing with everyone when a man yelled, "Hey, Carlos, let them give you a Wheaties job like Bob Richards."
Yet in private he still can be extremely serious. By far, his greatest concern is his wife Kim and their 3-year-old daughter Kimme. "My little girl is growing up," he once said, "and when she comes to me and tells me, 'Daddy, my dresses are too small,' I have the responsibility of getting her new ones."
And he tells the story of a plane ride he took shortly after the incident at the Olympics, when a stranger, for a moment, saw his other side. "On a plane," Carlos says, "I usually sleep. But this one time I sat down next to a guy who had this fear. He needed someone to talk to while flying. He said he'd buy drinks for me if I'd talk. I figured since he was buying, all right. Naturally, he wanted to talk about the demonstration. He didn't know who I was, and he was saying how he thought Tommie [Smith] was O.K. but how he didn't dig that Carlos. I just very quietly tried to explain the whole philosophy behind what we did. We had a good talk. Finally, when we got to the Coast and it was time to leave, the guy looked at me and said, 'I never did get your name.' I shook his hand and said, 'John Carlos.' His mouth dropped and he just said, 'You know, from all I've read I never imagined you could be like this, that you could talk this way.' "
In a simpler day John Carlos might have been nothing more than the latest World's Fastest Human—a long-legged, powerful runner who tied the world record in the 100-yard dash (9.1) this year and last year ran a 19.7 200 meters, which wasn't a world record only because he was wearing brush shoes, which have been deemed illegal by the International Amateur Athletic Federation. He has lost only once in his last 18 races over 100 and 220 yards (or their metric equivalents) and has won six straight Most Valuable Performer awards.
But the times and John Carlos are not so simple. It was once written that 10 years may pass like an uneventful day, but there may come a day that is like 10 years. For John Carlos that day was an October afternoon in Mexico City. After Tommie Smith won the gold medal in the 200 and Carlos won the bronze they mounted the victory stand and, as The Star-Spangled Banner was played, raised their black-gloved fists and bowed their heads. From that moment they became more than just fast runners.
They were banished from the Olympic Village, but they were heroes to many blacks. A week afterward at Howard University, Carlos received a medallion portraying Malcolm X and remarked, "This is the real gold medal." His explanation for the Olympic demonstration came at a welcome-home rally for him and Smith at their school, San Jose State. "When Tommie and I got on that stand," Carlos said then, "we knew we weren't alone. We knew that everyone at home who was watching was up on that stand with us. We wanted to let the world know about the problems of black people, and we did our thing and stepped down. We believe we were right. We'd do it again tomorrow."
Yet today, less than a year later, Carlos has rejected such blatant militancy. This summer he is going to be a counselor and a goodwill man for the Seafarers International Union School of Seamanship in Piney Point, Md., where his boss will be Pappy Gault, the Olympic boxing coach and the man who had Olympic Heavyweight Champion George Foreman wave the American flag. At the Freedom Games, in his first race in an SIU uniform, Carlos was clean-shaven, a transformation Gault took credit for.
In a short press conference after the meet, Carlos propounded his new philosophy. "I'll still be right along with the black movement," he said. "But I'll be more discreet in my actions. I'll be going for the same things but I'll be changing my tactics. I did what I did thinking of the black kids coming around after me. I didn't want them to go through the same things as me. But I've been getting too many hate letters and it's disgusting to have my wife read them to me over the phone."
"Do you feel you were taken advantage of?" someone asked.
"Everyone has been taken advantage of by someone at some time in his life," Carlos answered. "But I don't want to name any names." At that point Gault stepped quickly forward and added, "That's right, he doesn't want to name names. That's not nice." Then he told Carlos he thought that was enough and that he should make a closing statement. Carlos said thank you, he was happy to have been able to run so well in the East and he jogged off. His little speech was, in effect, a postscript to a remark he had made earlier in the day. To avoid controversy, he told a reporter, "I don't have any more comments to make to nobody."
John Carlos is, then, an enigma, certainly to those around him, perhaps even to himself. "I am sort of unpredictable," he once said. "But I think that's good." He hides behind his antics, looking for attention, for an audience. "He is like a rattle," one man close to the San Jose track team said. "He is a constant noise. I don't even listen. The noise goes on from morning to night. You turn it off and on."
"Everything's a stage for John," says his teammate, Sam Davis. "He even uses the track as a stage. And in order to win that Emmy, he has to be smooth. So he keeps practicing."
The show goes on everywhere. At meets he wears a fluorescent yellow track suit with "Johnny Carlos" in red block letters across the back. The Coke he drinks is often mixed with Scotch. He signs autographs in the stands until minutes before his race, and when he finally gets to the starting line, his seeming unconcern, his smile, perhaps even a pat on the back, will snap most runners like violin strings. "He'll never let anyone get the high side on him," a friend says. "Not you, not any runner, not any cat on the street. Carlos talks to keep that high side off himself."
Everyone has his favorite Carlos story. There was the night in D√ºsseldorf when he drank with a local reporter until 3 a.m., then bet him two fifths of Scotch that he would beat Willie Turner in the 200 meters later that day. Carlos did, of course, and he collected his bet in the infield. (Carlos laughs when reminded of this. "Well, my father used to tell me," he says, " 'You can drink all you want as long as you can still go home and hang up your clothes instead of throwing them over a chair.' And I haven't ever gotten that drunk yet.")
Then there was the night after the 1968 San Jose Invitational when Carlos served an unidentified whiskey that was so strong his teammates gagged when they tried it. "If you had ever been in Harlem," he told them, "you would appreciate it. You would know it's good stuff. If you lived where I lived, you would have grown up on it."
There was Lake Tahoe, when he went to the starting line for the finals of the 200 carrying a tape recorder. He danced in his lane to African music while waiting for the start, saying after he won that the sounds helped loosen him up. And there was the verbal battle between him and O.J. Simpson when it appeared they would run against each other in the 440-yard relay at last year's Coliseum-Compton Invitational. "Listen here, O.J.," Carlos roared, "when we get to that third leg and I get the baton, I'm just going to run right up your butt and come out your eyes." No one laughed louder than Simpson.
All of this is part of Carlos' hustle, his need to be noticed. He even works out in the morning, some say, so he can come to practice in the afternoon, do nothing but talk, then brag, "Look, man, I don't even practice and I'm winning races." And he has threatened not to run so many times that his teammates have got to kidding him whenever the question comes up. "Yeah," they say, "let's boycott."
"Is John ever serious?" Tommie Smith muses. "John's always serious. He's serious when he's out there talking. That's John. That's his way. See, being serious doesn't necessarily mean going out, sitting down and being quiet. John's way is talking. If you ever see him sitting and quiet you know he's sick."
Carlos himself once explained it to a friend. "You know," he said, "with all the stuff that's going on in the world, with babies dying and being crippled and the whole war going on, if I walked around and was intense about everything, I just couldn't take it. This is my escape—clowning around. It makes it a lot easier to get through."
As a lot of blacks would agree, that is one of the very few ways to "get through" a Harlem boyhood. ("If you were weak," Carlos says of growing up in Harlem, "you ended up a hood. You ended up killing people.") Then there was Manhattan Vocational and Technical High School, where Carlos learned machine and metal trades—but not how to read worth a damn. There was no track, certainly no thought of college, and when he graduated in 1965 he started to work and, on the side, to run for the New York Pioneer Club. He was brought to the attention of Delmer Brown, the track coach at East Texas State, who obtained special permission to get Carlos enrolled and in the fall of 1966 had himself a top sprinter.
According to Carlos it all happened under false pretenses. He says he was told there was no racism in Commerce, Texas, that blacks had decent housing, that he would have tutors, that his rent and medical bills would be paid and that he would get a monthly scholarship check to cover his family's expenses. It turned out quite differently. There were parents who would not let their children play with Carlos' daughter because she was black. He was refused service in a bar. "They called me 'boy,' " he recalls. "I said my name isn't 'boy.' Here's my name, here in the papers." There were no tutors and the housing was poor. And the coaches were still used to calling black athletes "nigger." "In Harlem I wasn't used to doing what people told me to do," says Carlos, "so I didn't make it in Texas."
People in Texas say it wasn't the way Carlos tells it. The man Kim Carlos worked for as a secretary, journalism professor W. J. Bell, says, "John was sinned against in that manual training school. He was never required to learn to read. When he got here we put him in a reading clinic and initially he read only at a first-grade level. After he got to the fifth-grade level he quit. When he left here he was probably failing every course."
Delmer Brown remembers Carlos with much less charity. "After some of his early successes in meets he became obnoxious," Brown says. "Sometimes I had to threaten him to make him work, as I would any athlete—disciplinary threats, not physical threats. He was treated exactly like everyone else, but he let it be known to the team and to me that he wanted special favors." Then, according to Brown, came charges of racism and resentment on the team and finally a meeting of the black trackmen with Athletic Director Jesse Hawthorne. Carlos allegedly did much of the talking, but, according to an athlete who was there, another member of the team finally stood up and said, "The rest of us have decided that nobody is being mistreated and only John is unhappy. We all want to stay, but under the circumstances, if he's not happy then he ought to leave."
Carlos left East Texas State in 1967, enrolling last year at San Jose at the urging of Harry Edwards, who led the proposed Olympic boycott. "Look, man," Edwards told Carlos, "we have something going on at San Jose and you can be sure an athlete is not going to be messed on." Carlos expressed only one wish: he wouldn't have to become involved in the demonstrations.
That Carlos changed and became militantly involved was no surprise. "It was the atmosphere he walked into," recalls Art Simburg, a former San Jose student who is the American representative for Puma track shoes. "The whole place was alive politically. He now had contact with many people who were activists. And as people began to attack [Lee] Evans and Smith, as they started to get hate letters, Carlos realized this was not a personal attack but an attack on black people. To imply any of them were led—Smith, Evans or Carlos—would be an insult. They had minds of their own. And all of them were free."
As a graduate of Harlem, Carlos knew more about prejudice than either Smith or Evans, who both grew up in California grape fields. "I like all kinds of people," Carlos says. "White. Black. Yellow. Red. I don't care. Any kind of people, so long as they're fair to me. But sometimes it just doesn't seem to work."
It worked one afternoon in the office of San Jose Sports Information Director Larry Close. A group of students from a local high school wanted to talk with someone on the black athlete situation. Carlos, who happened to be in the office, volunteered. "What would you like to know?" he asked.
"They were there with their tape recorders," Close recalls, "and when they started asking intelligent questions, John gave intelligent answers. 'They only teach the one side, they don't teach the other side,' the kids said. 'How do we get it changed?' Carlos answered, 'You have to see your parents and have them go to the schoolteacher to have it changed.'
"Then he started talking to these kids about the ghetto, how he grew up. I couldn't believe I was hearing Carlos talk, talking from the heart and soul. It was the first time I had ever heard or seen him like that. Listening to him, I was amazed. And the kids were amazed. After it was over, John walked up to me and said, 'I don't expect people to believe everything I say. All I want is that they listen to me and have an open mind.' "
To Carlos' mind the present is everything. He doesn't think far ahead but is preoccupied with acceptance now and money now—and he is confident that he can have it all. Although only a sophomore at San Jose, his class at East Texas State graduates next June, making him eligible for the pro draft. "And if they drafted me tonight, I'd sign tomorrow," he says. "And not for nickels. If I'm going to have to get hit, then stitched up, they're going to have to pay me good. Some guys do it for 85 cents. That's too much hurt for junk change like that. I can't see it."
It never enters his mind that he may fail in pro ball just as he never doubted from his first days at San Jose that the world records would some day be his. At the time, two summers ago, Carlos measured himself and realized what he could do. "You have never really seen me run," he said one afternoon while visiting Tommie Smith's apartment. Then, looking at Smith's trophies, he said, "You just watch. Someday I'm going to get me that record in the 100. And someday I'm going to get me that record in the 220."
This confidence has not wavered. The night before the Mt. San Antonio Relays in April, he heard that Mike Goodrich, a sophomore from Indiana University, had run the 100 in a 9.2, then the best of the season. Although it was past midnight, Carlos called his coach, Bud Winter. "This is Carlos," he announced, then promised, "I can't let that cat get away with it." Hours later Carlos ran a 9.2 and said he would set a world record the next week. He did, running nine flat, but the mark was disallowed because of an excessive following wind. Again, a week later at the Fresno Relays, Carlos promised that he would set a record and this time he tied it. And yet again, after his win at Villanova, he predicted that he would run the 220 in 19.6, .4 under the world record and the 100 in 8.8 or 8.9.
Yet being at the top is a new role for Carlos, so long the underdog, the victim, and there are those who feel that he doesn't want the part. Winter, who has coached Ray Norton, Smith and Evans, each a world-record holder, taught Carlos high-knee action—some call it the San Jose look—and worked with him on his form. (During Carlos' first high-knee drill at San Jose his form was so terrible that Evans burst out laughing. "You look so bad," he told Carlos. "How do you run so fast?") But although Winter has helped Carlos with the mechanics, he hasn't been able to reach Carlos' mind.
"As a runner, Carlos hasn't surprised me at all," Winter says. "The first time I saw him go down a track he looked like he was pounding grapes into wine. He looked like he was shuffling. But he always had the potential. Now I say he has the potential to be the greatest ever. As a matter of fact, our goal for him this year is at least five world records—100 yards and meters, 220 yards, 200 meters and a leg on the 880 relay. And if he would work on the 440 he could set track immortality.
"But now it's a psychological game for us to get him to that goal. He's the toughest man I've ever tried to coach. He's one of the strangest men I've ever met. A kaleidoscope. Sometimes he can be so logical, so rational and will say, 'I see your point of view.' And you think you have gotten through to him. But the next day everything may have changed again. The biggest thing now is pressing the right buttons. If we do, John can achieve the greatest results.
"Our problem is that there is in Carlos what we call the will to fail. This role of underdog is so big in his book that sometimes he's afraid to get the world records because he'll no longer be the underdog. It's not that he's afraid of being a champion. He's the most confident person I've seen. He's relaxed. Cocky. When he makes up his mind to do something he's fantastic. He'll work hard for it. He can almost call his shot. When he's convinced, he'll produce.
"But there's a difference between the wish to win and the will to win. The world is full of people who could have broken the world record. Now he tells me he wants the world records next year. But talent is like a windfall. It may never come again."
John Carlos does not worry. Like at Villanova. As the day ended a girl ran up to him and pulled a white silk scarf from her purse. She laid it flat across the victory stand.
"Sign it as large as you can," she said.
"O.K., baby," said Carlos, and he smiled and looked at her.
"You know," she said, "I'm never ever going to wash this scarf again."
"Why's that?" Carlos asked.
"It might wash out," she answered.
"Don't worry, baby," Carlos said. Then he laughed. "Johnny Carlos will never wash out."