Over the last several weeks I have had the privilege of interviewing two icons of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, George Foreman and John Carlos. One boxer. One sprinter. Two strikingly different lives. Foreman, despite a childhood of poverty and hunger, felt blessed to live in a country where he could find a way out through the Great Society programs of President Lyndon Johnson.
Carlos was someone who saw not the promise of the Great Society but its contradictions. The famous line by Dr. King that “there is no point in being able to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford a meal,” was something that burned inside his chest. Foreman saw sports as a way out. Carlos saw it as a way to wake people up.
Carlos raised his fist in protest with Tommie Smith on the Olympic medal stand, a moment that defined a generation feeling locked out of the American Dream.
Foreman after punching his way to gold, waved an American Flag and bowed, and assumed that the Dream was his for the taking. Carlos, as he told me, wanted his medal-stand-moment to speak for “shift workers, blue-collar people, and the underdogs… the people whose contributions to society are so important but don’t get recognized.”
Foreman wanted to speak for himself proudly exclaiming, “If I had to do it over I would wave three flags.” Carlos was stripped of his medal, banished from Olympic village, and persecuted for years, but has no regrets. Foreman returned to Houston, ready to become the most fearsome heavyweight champ of his era, but carries the deep regret that people thought his flag waving was a rebuke of Smith and Carlos.
Foreman has spent a life time savoring his 15 minutes of fame like a last meal. Carlos wanted to know who had the right to tell him he could only have 15 minutes.
“A lot of the athletes thought that winning medals would…protect them from racism,” Carlos told me. “It might give you 15 minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life?” In Foreman we have a uniquely American figure, a modern Jay Gatsby; someone who recreated himself from cold, snarling heavyweight machine to porky Pied Piper with a personality so engaging he can sell us millions of dietary grills, which is akin to George W. Bush marketing encyclopedias.
Carlos is also a uniquely American figure, but less PT Barnum than Paul Robeson, less Willie Wonka than WEB DuBois. He was the person telling bitter truths many people weren’t ready to hear, a messenger mercilessly attacked for his message.
Foreman recalled with real sadness, “I’ll never forget seeing John Carlos walk past the dormitory when he was sent packing with all these cameras following him around and I saw the most sad look on his face. This was a proud man who always walked with his head high, and he looked shook… Forget about the flag. This was our teammate…. We loved each other and it made us mad.” Carlos expressed that he still does not feel embraced after all these years. “I feel like a survivor, like I survived cancer. It’s like if you are sick and no one wants to be around you, and when you’re well everyone who thought you would go down for good doesn’t even want to make eye contact.”
But survivors, who make it out the other side scarred but strong with their message intact, can inspire people on a plane beyond the reach of most people, let alone athletes.
I received an e-mail from someone who read the interview online and wrote, “I’m crying as I read this. This is an incredible human being. He gives you faith in human beings in general. What a voice. These guys risked everything and lost all that potential glory for the cause. And the world tried to destroy them for their troubles and yet here he is, all these years later and he still stands by his principles.”
Ali Freeman, a 69-year-old man, penned a poem after reading the interview that I want to share:
Remembering the pride that was felt, when you stepped up to the
Then Young John and his teammate took hold of fate and turned
that day into a message for fair play.
Men such as you should have their day and take up page upon
page in the history books .
If I may say, please forgive those who witnessed greatness but
chose to remain faceless.
It takes courage and will to do what you did and my how you made
There were shock waves yet you have not a clue to the lives that
So sorry that you lost your mate in the wake of cowardice and
mindlessness of a people gone insane.
A people who have been stained and beaten by the game.
So sorry that your talent had to be put in disrepair.
Lord knows no one could match you.
May you have more good days than bad and maintain your stand
for John, the man among men.
America knows ….
YOU DESERVE THE MEDAL OF HONOR
George Foreman is a terrifically engaging man who through reinvention holds both fame and fortune, but John Carlos survived as the same man he has always been. That, for all of us, is worth a hell of a lot more than 15 minutes.
DAVE ZIRIN is the News Editor of the Prince George’s Post, Prince George’s County’s only black-owned paper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He also is launching www.edgeofsports.com