Tommie Smith Selling His Gold Medal Isn't Such a Mystery
Don't jump to that conclusion ... for now.
Smith has put that medal -- the one hanging around his neck when he raised his right fist in protest on the victory stand in Mexico City 42 years ago Saturday -- up for auction once before, in 1999. That move, like this one, was similarly shrouded in mystery; he gave no public reason for wanting to sell it and gave none when he withdrew it soon afterward. It was left open to widespread interpretation, including the notion that he needed the money to live, or that the repercussions of his protest were too great to bear anymore.
Smith answered many of those questions in his 2007 autobiography, "Silent Gesture" (on which I was his co-author) -- and his motives turned out to be more noble than desperate. One goal he hoped the book would achieve was to debunk the myth that the medal had been taken from him in Mexico City after the protest -- he owned it, and he showed it to me on an early visit.
On the other hand, he kept it stored, did not display it as he did other pieces of memorabilia of his career, and always spoke more of its meaning, to himself and others and for better and worse, than of its importance as an object.
In "Silent Gesture," he wrote that years ago he wanted to start a youth foundation in his Central California hometown of Lemoore. He went to civic and business leaders in the area for financial support, but was constantly turned down, frustrating him and bringing back memories of how he had been looked down on by many of the locals even before he became an international track star, and openly denigrated after his Olympic protest.
Referring to his father, who worked as a custodian in the city schools and who got Tommie to help during the summers, Smith recalled thinking: "(To them) I'm nothing more than Richard Smith's son, the kid who used to clean classroom floors and dig for tadpoles. I had come there to gladly give my time to build a foundation to get kids off the street, and it never came together ... I couldn't believe that nobody was dedicated enough to the cause of the foundation to just write a check.''
Smith first wanted to put other Olympic memorabilia up for sale, but he said those did not draw enough of a price. He decided then to auction off the gold medal, for $500,000 (the current asking price is $250,000), believing it was more than reasonable and noting that the baseball Mark McGwire hit to set the then-single season home run record had gone for $3 million.
When no bid came close to the asking price, he wrote, "I was insulted. We took the gold medal out of the auction, and now we won't put it back. It's better off this way, anyway, because I believe some people would have bought it and thrown it away, just for the heck of it, so I wouldn't have it.''
The comments by Gary Zimet, a representative of Moments in Time Memorabilia in Washingtonville, N.Y., fit in with the mindset Smith espoused in "Silent Gesture."
"Of course, the medal is important to him, but the memory of winning the race is far more important," Zimet told insidebayarea.com. "He is doing it for the money, but not because he is desperate. If someone is willing to pay his price," he'll sell.
Coincidentally, on Tuesday, the day before the news of the auction broke, Smith and fellow medalist and protester John Carlos were in Orlando to be inducted into the Hall of Fame for the National Consortium for Academics and Sports, the organization run by sports sociologist Dr. Richard Lapchick. At the time, Smith spoke about starting a youth initiative.
The logical connection -- more so than one about his being in dire straits or in crisis about the value of the medal -- is that Smith is making another bid at the same project that prompted him to put it up for auction before.
Until further notice, it sounds as if that's the better assumption to make: that Smith again sees a way to have that gold medal make a tangible impact on others in a way it isn't doing now while tucked away at his house.
And that the windfall from that medal will benefit others, not himself.