Tommie Smith (born June 6, 1944) is an American former track & field athlete and wide receiver in the American Football League. At the 1968 Summer Olympics, Smith won the 200-meter dash finals and gold medal in 19.83 seconds – the first time the 20-second barrier was broken. His Black Power salute with John Carlos atop the medal podium caused controversy at the time as it was seen as politicizing the Olympic Games. It remains a symbolic moment in the history of the American Civil Rights Movement.
Tommie Smith was born on June 6, 1944 in Clarksville, Texas, the seventh of 12 children born to Richard and Dora Smith. He suffered from pneumonia as a child, but still grew to be an athletic youth. While attending Lemoore High School in Lemoore, California, Smith showed great potential, setting most of the school’s track records, many of which remain. He won the 440-yard dash in the 1963 CIF California State Meet. He was voted Lemoore’s “Most Valuable Athlete” in basketball, football, and track and field. His achievements earned him a scholarship to San Jose State.
On May 7, 1966 while he was at San Jose State, Smith set a world best of 19.5 seconds in the 200 metres straight, which he ran on a cinder track. That record for 200 metres was finally beaten by Tyson Gay on May 16, 2010, just over 44 years later, though Smith still holds the record for the slightly longer 220-yard event. Since the IAAF has abandoned ratifying records for the event, Smith will retain the official record for the straightaway 200 metres/220 yards in perpetuity.
A few weeks later, on June 11, 1966, Smith set the record for 200 metres and 220 yards around a turn at 20.0, the first man to do that in 20 seconds. Six days later he won the NCAA Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Championship. Smith also won the national collegiate 220-yard (201.17 m) title in 1967 before adding the AAU furlong (201.17m) crown as well. He traveled to Japan for the 1967 Summer Universiade and won the 200 m gold medal. He repeated as AAU 200-meter champion in 1968 and made the Olympic team.