The salute that
stung an icon
THIRTY-FIVE years ago last Thursday was an Olympic moment that will be remembered forever. An image so powerful if you've seen the picture you see it now: Two men on the medal stand, two heads bowed, two fists to the sky.
Les Keiter, the Hall of Fame broadcaster, our local treasure, told the story of the moment last week, on the day before its anniversary. But he doesn't see the men and their protest when he thinks about that picture. To him it simply brings back the memory of Jesse Owens' toughest day.
Of course you know it was Owens who won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, making him one of our country's greatest athletic heroes. Of course because he did it as a black man in Hitler's Nazi Germany, it made him even more.
In 1968 Keiter got the call to broadcast the Olympics for Mutual Radio. He and Owens, who had always been his favorite sports figure, would be partners. They would become terrific friends.
But a tour of the Olympic Village turned ugly. A man, an American athlete, started yelling at Owens, pointing his finger, making a scene. "He was tall," Keiter remembered, "about 6-foot-4." Owens was about Keiter's height. The man towered over him. He said Owens' wins in '36 were the worst thing to happen to "us." Said something was coming tomorrow that the whole world would see.
"He said, 'You're nothing but an Uncle Tom!' " Keiter recalled.
Owens turned to Keiter with tears in his eyes.
"Jesse Owens was approached more than once," 1968 Olympian and activist Tommie Smith confirmed, "by athletes who didn't understand what he had to do."
The next day, in the 200 meters, Americans Smith and John Carlos won gold and bronze. But the high jump kept delaying their medal ceremony. Finally, Mutual Radio's broadcast day was over, and Owens and Keiter got into a cab.
The driver had the Olympics on the radio. Seven Mexico City stations were carrying the games. The anthem was playing, "our national anthem," Keiter said. Then, boos filled the airwaves, too.
"Fist?" Owens asked, as the driver frantically tried to sign the Spanish broadcast for them. "Arm? Hand? Closed fist?"
You know the picture by heart. Today, it is an American icon. Today, it is a profile in courage.
Today it is.
That night there was anger, outrage, there were boos at those black gloves and raised fists. The two men would become outcasts and receive death threats.
"I was scared for two years," Smith said. But he and Carlos had done it anyway, as part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. "We had a responsibility," he said, 35 years after he'd been banned from the Olympics for life.
What a night he'd had, Owens told Keiter.
The United States Olympic Committee had called. The two men were to be kicked off the U.S. team. The International Olympic Committee rang. Smith and Carlos were banned from the games, they were to leave Mexico immediately.
All this, Keiter said, fell to Jesse Owens to carry out.
He'd had to go back to the Olympic Village, where he'd entered as an elegant champion and had left stung, branded a traitor. It was his job to personally collect these men who didn't understand him, whose actions he couldn't comprehend. He was to drive them to the airport himself.
But Smith said no, Owens never came for them, 35 years ago. He and Carlos read about their banishment in the newspaper, he thinks they left in a cab. "I was afraid of anybody driving us anywhere," he said.
Details are fuzzy about those few days, a lot of facts are in dispute, many stories are "partly true or not true," Smith said.
He and Carlos themselves don't even agree on what really happened, whose idea it was.
One raised a right fist for black power in protest, the other a left fist for peaceful black unity. But the other half of the story is that they had only one pair of black gloves.
(The third man in the picture, Australian Peter Norman, has said that it was his idea, in the moments before the medal ceremony, that Smith and Carlos split them, and each wear one.)
It was after all of this that Keiter was told to ask Owens to compare this experience to what he'd been through in Berlin. Keiter refused.
"Les, you have to do it," the producer said. So he did.
Owens' face went from shock to sadness. That is the picture that stays with Keiter from these Games. Not the other.
Owens had kept his humility even while beating the fuhrer. He'd strived to keep his dignity with every slight. There was no comparison, he said. Hitler never snubbed him, he told Keiter. What was his famous quote? The U.S. president never shook his hand either.
But in 1968 he was still everyone's symbol. To some he was the Good Black Athlete. A "professional good example," a writer of the time wrote. To others he was a man who went along.
"I call it the Scratch and Shuffle school," Smith said Friday, after noting Owens was a product of his time.
Two American heroes, still separated by a chasm of a generation gap.
And in 1968 the weight of these protests was on Owens from all sides.
No, there was no comparison, he told Keiter. There were tears in his eyes again. This was Jesse Owens' toughest day.
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Kalani Simpson can be reached at email@example.com