Jul 18 2012 By Paul Warburton
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AS the countdown to London 2012 reaches its climax, we take a look at West London's Olympic legacy - whether through Olympians from the area, or those who have had a lasting impact on it. Today, with 10 days left, Paul Warburton looks at how a former Olympic legend is helping the next generation of West Londoners fulfil their athletic potential.
THE link to West London might be in its infancy – but Tommie Smith’s youth organisation could soon be part of an exchange scheme with Track Academy that looks after athletes in our patch.
The Academy, based in Willesden, mentors kids from Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea and Brent, and played host to Smith last year.
On a bright Saturday morning he looked down at the state-of-the-art Mondo track in Donnington Road – and thought back.
The American was also looking down in his own block on October 17, 1968, and focusing on the race of his life.
In lane three of the Olympic 200m final – Smith was out-and-out favourite.
The 24-year-old graduate from San Jose State University had won his semi-final by more than five metres – but made a dreadful mistake crossing the line.
As he coasted into the final, Smith momentarily forgot how to gradually stop.
Going at something 20 miles an hour, even coming down from the race, his unexpected sharp turn left around the bend did for his groin.
The recording shows Smith immediately reaching down and clutching the inside of his leg as the pain takes effect.
Now, here he was in the final, having iced and sprayed – but unlike the other seven competitors – he had not taken a single practice start – he dare not.
“I figured that if I got out well without anything else going, that would be enough,” he said. “But if I did something in a warm-up that stopped me running, that would be disaster.”
Even so, USA team-mate John Carlos heads the race from the gun, with Smith slowly getting into the giant stride that 6ft 4ins allows you.
As Carlos anxiously glances left and right in the final 80 metres, Smith hits the front and eats up the ground to win in a new 19.83s world record.
Fast-finishing Aussie Peter Norman is second, just a vest thickness ahead of Carlos.
Unfortunately, it is what happens next that everybody remembers.
Younger readers may want to look up the tumultuous year that was 1968: student protest all over the world – a fatal one in Mexico City before these games, Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, and black power.
I asked Smith whether there was a bit of him still a little peeved he and Carlos’s defiant fists in protest at the victory ceremony nullified his fabulous athletic achievement.
“I did it because it was necessary,” said Smith. “I got out of it what I deserved, because it’s not difficult to be honest. But very few thought about what I had achieved on the track.
“They didn’t want to face what I did after. Had I been a nice American black instead of a black American – you get the difference? Had I put my hand over my heart to a flag that didn’t represent me, then I’m sure the gold and world record would have got recognition.”
The story goes Norman suggested that as Carlos had forgotten his black gloves going out to the podium, they wear one each from Smith’s pair.
Not true, it appears.
“Peter didn’t have anything to do with the gloves,” countered Smith. “John didn’t forget his. 80% of what you read is untrue. Each black athlete was asked to do what he thought best about representing a country that didn’t represent him.
“I knew exactly what I was going to bring to the victory stand – and why. Black socks to symbolise black poverty for example – and it looked cool too, I must say.
“If kids thought it was cool, and became aware of what we’re trying to achieve – all the better.”