Tommie "The Jet'' Smith

Given reference to Usain Bolt as potentially the “new Tommie Smith” I thought some may like to link to The Jet’s own website…

The Original Michael Johnson

by Justin Clouder

Michael Johnson is unique (among men) in having won 200m and 400m at one OG, and his dominance of both events is unprecedented.

However, at least one great champion of the past can claim similar ability over both events, and also achieved something Johnson has yet to do - World Records in both. That man is 1968 Olympic 200m Champion Tommie Smith. This piece is an overview of his career highlights.

Smith is best known for his 1968 Olympic win, in a time (19.83) which was a WR until 1979 and has still only been surpassed by a handful of men, and also for the controversy surrounding the Black Power salute he and John Carlos gave on the victory rostrum in Mexico City.

However, Mexico City effectively represented the end of a great career. Prior to this came three other WRs at 200m and one each at 400m, 4x200m and 4x400m. Many of these were barrier breaking performances.

Smith’s first WR came at 200m on a straight course in San Jose on 13 March 1965, when he equalled the 20.0 record held by Dave Sime (in 1956) and Frank Budd (in 1962). The following year he obliterated this with a stunning 19.5 over 220y (201.2m), also at San Jose, on 7th May. This was the first sub 20 sec 200m (straight or turn) with a legal wind, a landmark performance.

Later in 1966, on 11 June in Sacramento, Smith ran 20.0 for 220y round a full turn. This is worth 19.9 for 200m (although no time was taken at the 200m mark), the first time 20.0 was broken around a turn. Second in this race was Lee Evans in 21.0, while Jim Hines won a second race in 20.9! Six days later Smith won the NCAA 220y title in Provo, clocking 20.26 (worth 20.14 for 200m), the fastest auto-time on record (breaking Henry Carr’s 20.36 from the Tokyo OG in 1964).

A further barrier breaking performance came on 24th July 1966, in a 4x400m for the USA against the Commonwealth. Following Robert Frey (46.3) and Lee Evans (44.5), Smith ran a 43.8 leg (the first ever under 44) before handing over to Theron Lewis, who ran 45.0 to bring the team home in 2:59.6, the first ever performance under 3:00.

Smith ran 400m infrequently, but one stunning performance came in 1967. This was a WR of 44.8 for 440y (44.5 at 400m) in San Jose on 20th May. This was a great race with Lee Evans, who led through 220y 21.5-21.7 before Smith pulled ahead by 330y (33.5-33.8). Evans finished in 45.3. The next day Smith ran 10.1 for 100m, his best ever.

One week prior to this race, on 13th May, Smith contributed a stunning 19.4 220y leg (worth 19.3 for 200m) to a San Jose State College team WR for 4x220y at the Fresno Relays. This followed 21.1 from Ken Shackleford, 20.5 from Robert Talmadge and 21.1 from Lee Evans. Later in 1967, Smith ran 45.25 for 400m in London, his best ever auto-time. He also ran 45.9 indoors in early 1967 and had a long jump best of 7.90 (25’11").

Altogether, a stellar few years. Few athletes can claim quite so many firsts, let alone over such a short perod. Smith was also a supremely elegant runner as well as supremely talented, and at 6’3" and 180lbs he was an imposing sight on the track. He was born on 12th February 1944 and so all the above, and his OG triumph, was accomplished before his 25th birthday.

All in all, in my view, one of the all-time greats of Track & Field.

Justin Clouder - Fist for Freedom (seen from John Carlos’s perspective)
Tommie Smith interview Part-A
Tommie Smith interview Part-B
Democracy Now interview with Tommie Smith about 1968