EUGENE, Ore. — The first world track and field championships held in the United States paused Thursday night to honor Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the men who protested on the medal podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Hayward Field displayed a video tribute to Smith and Carlos, and the crowd gave them with a standing ovation.
The United States’ top track and field executive can envision a grander tribute when the Olympics return to U.S. soil in six years. USA Track & Field CEO Max Siegel told The Washington Post that he supports the idea of picking Smith and Carlos as the athletes who light the cauldron at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.
“It would be not only symbolic, but it would be so meaningful to have them involved in that display of what the Olympics are all about,” Siegel said. “That is certainly worthy to advocate for, to have their presence front and center and just really recognized for what they contributed.”
The presence of Smith and Carlos was felt at Day 7 of the world championships, which Smith and Carlos attended. Just before the men’s 200 meters — the event they starred in half a century ago — a video detailed their actions as the U.S. national anthem played, when each raised a gloved fist and wore no shoes with black socks to protest social injustice and racial inequality.
Smith and Carlos have become athletic and cultural icons in the United States, but their actions drew scorn and rebuke at the time. They were suspended from the U.S. team and thrown out of the Olympic Village, and many news reports condemned them.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee has sided with Smith and Carlos in recent years as athletes have waded into social activism with greater frequency. It inducted Smith and Carlos to its Hall of Fame in 2019. It has supported U.S. Olympians who called on the International Olympic Committee to abolish Rule 50, the ordinance in the Olympic charter that prohibits athletes from making political displays at the Games. It has expressly permitted forms of protest at domestic trials. The USOPC apologized to hammer thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden for placing them on probation after podium demonstrations.
The IOC has kept Rule 50 in place. Smith and Carlos said Thursday night that the IOC has never offered them an apology for the conduct of then-president Avery Brundage, who ordered them kicked out of the Mexico City Games. An apology at this point, Smith said, may not mean much.
“For me, to apologize 50 years later would be beyond the idea of respect,” Smith said. “I wanted you to respect that kid of 24 years old at that time. He is the one that did it. I have moved forward, surpassed the embarrassment of a hand not being held out.”
“I would like to say the International Olympic Committee could be a fine organization,” Carlos said. “But they appear to be that ostrich that sticks his head in the ground to try and hide from everything. I confronted them a while ago and asked them: ‘Don’t you think you owe us an apology? Don’t you think it’s time?’ Their reply was: ‘We didn’t do anything to you. The United States Olympic Committee did it to you.’ I said, ‘Well, I recall you giving directive to the United States Olympic Committee to ban us from the team, take our medals back.’
“The question to them was, when was Rule 50 established?” Carlos added. “Was it established when the Nazis were on the [podium] and gave the ‘heil’ sign? I don’t recall them answering that. That’s a question that needs to be answered. Did this come about merely because it was two young, Black individuals?”
On Thursday night, Carlos took the opportunity to advocate for another cause. On the eve of the world championships, World Athletics awarded the 2025 world championships to Tokyo over finalist Nairobi. Neither the Olympics nor the world track and field championships have been held in Africa, a slight Carlos called out, noting that the World Cup was held in South Africa in 2010.
“We had so many great athletes come from the continent of Africa,” Carlos said. “We have not risen to the mind-set that we can put an Olympic Games or a world [championships] in the continent of Africa. People say, ‘They wasn’t ready.’ Soccer is probably the equivalent to the Olympics, and they hosted the soccer. I would think we all should be pushing for trying to have a little more equality amongst the ranks in the Olympic movement, the world movement and society in general.”
Siegel, the only Black CEO among U.S. Olympic sport governing organizations, keeps a poster of Smith and Carlos in his office for motivation. He told them at a news conference Thursday that he would not be in his position if not for them.
“To make the podium at an Olympic Games could be the single most important individual achievement in one’s life,” Siegel said. “But to think of others besides yourself at that moment, to be an agent of positive social change at that moment, is a true display of character.”