Of all people, Smith – a proud, disciplined, principled man. But there it was plain as day, on the website for the auctioneer, Moments in Time Memorabilia, the iconic photo of Smith, Peter Norman and John Carlos, the gold, silver and bronze medal winners of the 200M race at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
Carlos and Smith stood, heads bowed, black gloves thrust skyward as the US flag was raised with the playing of the national anthem.
This remains the most recognised athletic demonstration of protest and resistance in US history, and it was the perfect symbol of a generation. Why would Smith, 66, want to sell anything associated with this historic moment? Especially his gold medal?
When the news was announced, the first person who came to mind was David Steele, a columnist for AOL, who co-wrote Silent Gesture with Smith, a process that took nearly 10 years. Steele said he was surprised, but he recalled that Smith had tried to sell the gold medal nine years ago. Smith said he wanted to raise money for his foundation. He took it off the market shortly afterward.
Why now? Was Smith in financial trouble? Steele didn’t think so. “I never got the sense that he did it because he was hurting for money,” Steele said. “I worry with this news getting out now that everyone is going to get that impression. Unless something has changed in the last year, I don’t think it’s the case.”
For many of us, the gesture became an inspirational symbol of defiance. For Smith and Carlos, who suffered tremendously – they couldn’t find employment and received constant threats and hate mail – the medal became the symbol of a nightmare.
Perhaps by selling it, Smith will find closure, though the reality is he and Carlos will forever be defined by that moment. “He’s never come close to regretting anything he did, but clearly everything that has gone on since then has caused him a lot of pain,” Steele said. “He still gets death threats, people harassing him. All the different times that he’s moved, he’s gotten harassed by neighbours once they find out who he is. “On the other hand, he is 66 years old,” Steele said. “He may not be thinking about it as an object he has to cling to. He might put it to better use.”
Gary J Zimet, a representative of Moments in Time Memorabilia, is also selling the shoes Smith wore that night. Zimet said he contacted Smith a year ago and asked if he still had the gold medal and if he would sell it.
“He said, ‘No way,’” Zimet said. Zimet persisted. He flew to Smith’s home in Georgia three weeks ago and closed the deal. Zimet also approached Carlos, who won the bronze. He sent an e-mail asking whether Carlos would be interested in selling his medal directly to him or allowing Zimet to sell it for him.
“I haven’t heard back,” Zimet said.
Thankfully, he probably won’t.
Carlos said he had no interest in selling anything.
“The guy shouldn’t even approach me,” Carlos said. “I’m holding on to mine. I’m not interested in selling mine in any way, shape or form. My philosophy is this is my material that I have for my kids. Whatever they care to do with it after I’m gone, that’s their business.”
Smith and Carlos were in Orlando, Florida, earlier this week to be inducted into the Hall of Fame for the National Consortium for Academics and Sports, the organisation run by the sports sociologist Dr Richard Lapchick. Carlos said Smith never mentioned auctioning his medal.
“Not a word,” he said. “He won the medal. It’s his medal. He’s entitled to do with it as he feels. He earned it and it’s his responsibility to deal with it as he sees fit. I hope that he would consider what he’s doing, but at the same time I have no disrespect for how he’s doing what he’s doing. It’s his medal, and it’s his choice.”
Smith should be wise about selling his gold medal and shoes. Yes, the medal is his, but it has been cherished for generations by many who remember the moment and many more who have seen the footage.
The gesture was among the three most defining events in the social and political history of sports in the US – along with Jackie Robinson stepping forward to desegregate Major League Baseball and Muhammad Ali refusing to step forward to serve in the army.
Smith and Carlos raised clenched fists in a silent yet powerful gesture.
Now Smith wants to cash in.
In an ideal world someone, perhaps a contemporary athlete who is a collector, would buy Smith’s gold medal and his shoes and give them back – as a gift.
Integrity should not – must not – be for sale. Smith should know.
Wasn’t that the point?