The day that Olympic great Lee Evans outran hate

The call for a boycott was nothing new to San Jose State sprinter Lee Evans. Evans knew what was coming down the pipeline at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Just four years earlier, Olympic great Mal Whitfield was calling on athletes to turn their backs on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. 

By 1967, the great athletic boycott shakedown was taking place all over America. Boxer Muhammad Ali and his refusal to go into the armed forces via draft as well as his subsequent suspension from the sport was a trigger point for Black athletes in their fight against the inequality they faced routinely.

Then came the boycott of the famed New York Athletic Club Games, which seemed to put into motion that this Olympic boycott idea just might become reality.  

Black athletes were dealing with the impetus of the Civil Rights Movement as Jim Crow waged a segregationist battle in favor of white superiority. As the boycott movement roamed the country, Black athletes were torn on whether they should or should not boycott. 

Former San Jose State track coach Bud Winter and Lee Evans in a good mood. Photo credit: San Jose State Athletics

The 1968 Mexico City, Mexico Olympics would be Ground Zero if anything were to go down. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), however, did its best to squash any type of upheaval by athletes, particularly the Americans. So, the IOC sent the great Jesse Owens to talk to the American athletes and encourage them to do the right thing. The right thing for them to do was to chill on the boycott matter and not cause any friction within the sacred harmony of the Olympic spirit.

Well, that was not a wise move, Evans said. Even more dumbfounding to Evans and to other American athletes was how the IOC had the gall to use Owens in order to get to them.   

“[They were]Treating him badly after his exploits in the [Berlin] Olympic games when he ran [and won four gold medals],” Evans said in the book “What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States.” He came back, didn’t have a job, was racing horses for money. We were really annoyed with him because he knew what we were going through, yet he pretended that it didn’t exist, and that just blew our minds when he called a meeting with us in Mexico City.

“I thought he called this meeting because Avery Brundage sent him there,” Evans added. “Jesse Owens was sitting on the fifty-yard line with all the important people of the world, the royalties, the Avery Brundages. They have a special section where they sit in the games, right at the fifty-yard line, and Jesse-that’s where he was sitting. He thought he was one of them. He had forgot that he was once an athlete struggling like we were. So, he came and talked to us like he was Avery Brundage or the King of England or somebody, and really talking stupid to us, and we just shouted him out of the room.”  

Like the words he uttered, Evans was special. His accomplishments in track and field are legendary. Just take a look at his amazing sub-44 seconds 400-meter run he put down at the 1968 Summer Games.

When Lee took the track that day for the finals in the 400 meters, chaos and tumult were everywhere. A couple of days before he ran in the finals of the 400 meters, his “Speed City” buddies John Carlos and Tommie Smith had become instant pariahs after their human rights salute on the victory stand following the men’s 200 meters.

Lee Evans became the first person to break th 44-seconds barrier in the 400 meters. Photo credit: San Jose State Athletics
Lee Evans became the first person to break th 44-seconds barrier in the 400 meters. Photo credit: San Jose State Athletics

Both men, like Evans, were card-carrying members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a group that had advocated for the boycott of the 1968 Summer Games. After Carlos and Smith had created a worldwide stir with their clenched fist, black-gloved salute on Oct. 16, 1968, they were immediately booted out of the Olympic Village and sent back home to the United States.

It was a clear and cut message for other athletes that dared to be bold enough to try to interject politics into the field of sport. The IOC was not having it. Well, Evans didn’t really shy away from what he wanted to do if he had won. Two days after Smith and Carlos went first and third in the men’s 200 meters (Smith set a world record in the race with a time of 19.76), Evans smoked the 400-meter field in a time of 43.86. 

It would be the first time that any person had run under 44 seconds in the 400 meters. In picking up his gold medal, Evans almost made it look easy, although his then unorthodox running style said the contrary. The 43.86 seconds Evans ran was a world record. It was a time that stood for two decades.

“I was tired. I remember my quads quivering,” Evans said in a 2007 interview with reporter Dennis J. Freeman while attending a gala in Los Angeles celebrating the San Jose State track team. “When your muscles are quivering that means you’re tired. I was tired but my mental will propelled me to that world record. To me, it was all mental.”

Evans’ gold medal moment came after years of establishing himself as the best in the world. For three straight years, Evans was the No. 1 quarter-miler in the world (1966, 1967, and 1968), according to Track & Field News. He also earned the top ranking in the 400 in 1970 after finishing at No. 2 in 1969. 

Inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1983, Evans didn’t really have time to celebrate his historic victory the way he had wanted to. What happened to Carlos and Smith weighed heavily on his mind as he scooted around the track and in the moments leading up to the playing of the national anthem when he took the victory stand.  

He was nervous. After his decisive win in the 400, Evans was confronted with the reality of being an open target for any type of retaliation in respect to what Carlos and Smith did. The duo’s mini-mutiny certainly caused an uproar.      

There was anger. Lots of it. Because of what Carlos and Smith did, Black athletes were at the center of that anger. In an effort to pay homage to the Black Panther Party and a nod to what Carlos and Smith did without pissing off the IOC, Evans wore a Black beret on the medal stand. 

“All of our hearts were in the same place; we did different things to protest, but all of our hearts were in the same place,” Evans told Dennis J. Freeman. “We had to do something. Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King said don’t stand over there and watch everybody else; get involved. Do something. We were athletes, so we felt compelled to do something.”

Evans talked about the constant threats that he, Carlos and Smith would get and how terrifying it was for him as he raced across that track in record time.     

“It was fantastic, man,” Evans said. “It was life or death many times. We were always getting threats against our life. We were nothing but 19, 20, 21 years old…We were kids. (John Birch Society, Ku Klux Klan, The Rifle Association, White Angeles), people threatening our lives all the time. It was dangerous for us, personality. It was stressful. I said, ‘If they don’t kill me, I’m going to get to that finish line first. They inspired me. All that hate mail…it inspired me.’ We went through the fire.”

Evans won another gold medal at the 1968 Summer Games, running on the U.S. 4×400 men’s world-record-breaking team. The quartet of Evans, Ron Freeman, Larry James, and Vince Matthews recorded a world-record time of 2: 56.1. 

Even with his two world records and international recognition from his startling achievements at the 1968 Summer Games, Evans didn’t lose focus on the message that he and others like Carlos and Smith wanted to convey.   

“We’re running track but we’ve got to do something so that we can show we’re participating in the struggle,” Evans said. “So all of us…what we did in Mexico City and for the Olympic Project for Human Rights, with all the things that came out with the proposed boycott-it got attention. We fought for the freedom of our people.”

Featured Image: The photo of Tommie Smith, Lee Evans, Bob Talmadge and Ken Shackelford was taken after the quartet set a world record in the 880 relay. Photo credit: San Jose State University Athletics