HBO series jogs our memories of two who stood straight in '68


August 10, 1999|By Milton Kent

We live in an era in sports in which 1,000-yard rushers, .275 hitters and pitchers who manage an ERA under 4.00 are routinely called great, and where the definition of courageous often extends to an athlete who comes back from substance abuse or returns from an injury.

In other words, our sense of perspective has, over time, become warped, or, at least, seriously skewed. Thank goodness there are entities like HBO and its Peabody Award-winning series, "Sports of the 20th Century," to remind us of what true courage and greatness is.

The latest edition is Thursday's clumsily titled one-hour documentary, "Fists of Freedom: the Story of the '68 Summer Games," airing at 10 p.m.

The special chronicles the events leading up to and surrounding the protest staged by U.S. Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics.

The duo won gold and silver in the 200 meters at Mexico City -- Smith in world-record time -- and, upon receiving their medals, they lowered their heads and raised black-gloved fists while the U.S. national anthem played, as a show of "Black Power."

Framed against today's athlete, who wouldn't dream of taking an action that would jeopardize an endorsement deal, Carlos and Smith are titans, and the special takes great pains to present them as such, with extensive interviews with important figures of the time.

Producers George Roy and Steve Stern of Black Canyon Productions, the Emmy Award-winning company that turned out the "When It Was A Game" specials, smartly weave archival footage throughout "Fists of Freedom" to make the sprinters seem less the threats they were portrayed and more human.

The producers also wisely address the fears of those athletes who stayed out of the protest, including George Foreman, who, after winning the heavyweight boxing gold medal, waved a miniature American flag.

Foreman, who regularly appears on HBO, was called an "Uncle Tom" for years after his action, and the show doesn't skirt that issue.

Unfortunately, Carlos, who has steadfastly declined over the years to discuss the protest, did not do an original interview for the piece.

But Roy and Stern dug up a 1979 interview in which Carlos criticized noted sports sociologist Harry Edwards for fomenting the current of dissent, then not attending the Games out of fear that he would be killed.

"Fists of Freedom" is a noble and moving story of two men who exhibited true courage by bucking the system with a simple and powerful statement that resonates today.

"They were not terrible people, but they were people who saw wrong and tried to right it, much as [Mahatma] Gandhi or [Martin Luther] King or Malcolm [X]. Remember them as people who were brave," said Ralph Boston, a track teammate of Smith and Carlos.

Missing the point

As much as we try, and sometimes in spite of ourselves, some of us who cover sports don't always get it. ESPN's "Sports Reporters" usually provides proof of that.

On Sunday's journey into bombast, columnist Mike Lupica and author John Feinstein challenged the placement of track legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee as No. 23 on ESPN's list of the greatest athletes of the century.

Lupica suggested that Joyner-Kersee, while talented, shouldn't have placed so high, while Feinstein said her position so high on the list was a concession to political correctness.

Oh, really? So, earning your way onto five Olympic teams, winning two world championships in the heptathlon, as well as two Olympic gold medals and a silver in the seven-event competition and two world championships and an Olympic gold and two bronzes in the long jump over a 16-year period doesn't make one special.

Or is it that it doesn't make a woman special? If anything, Joyner-Kersee, the 1986 Sullivan Award-winner as the nation's top amateur athlete and a basketball player at UCLA, should have been ranked higher.

With Martina Navratilova presumably eliminated from a list of North American-born athletes, Joyner-Kersee is arguably the greatest female competitor of the last 25 years, and takes her place alongside Babe Didrikson and Wilma Rudolph among the great women athletes of the century.

Perhaps if writers like Feinstein and Lupica expanded their horizons to take in more than the predictable, they'd appreciate more than the obvious.

Pub Date: 8/10/99

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