Q&A With Track Legend and Civil-Rights Icon Tommie Smith

The only man to hold 11 simultaneous track-and-field world records hosts a track meet to promote health and wellness for DC kids.

Former Olympian Tommie Smith hosts an annual youth track meet in DC to promote healthy living among DC kids. Photograph courtesy of Tommie Smith.

Tommie Smith is no stranger to implementing change. With his infamous Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games where he broke the 20-second sound barrier in the 200-meter dash and won the gold medal, he sparked both conversation and controversy. He went on to break more world records—11, to be exact. But he says it was his time spent as a teacher for 38 years that inspired him to found the Tommie Smith Youth Track Meet for boys and girls ages 5 to 18.

Two days before the fifth annual DC meet, we talked to Tommie about his history as an athlete, his current health routine, and what’s to come for the young runners participating this weekend.

Why did you choose DC as one of the cities to host this track meet?

We saw a need for something like this when it came to the educational process and growth of children. We wanted to open the eyes of residents here. We also happen to have a lot of manpower here, and it’s gotten to the point where we have three generals and have now reached a two-to-one ratio when it comes to DC and Oakland, California, the other city where we host this meet.

Tell me a little bit about what you’ve been up to lately.

Kids. Kids are our future, and I’m just focused on making sure they’re on the right direction in life when it comes to health and wellness.

What inspired you to come up with the idea for this kind of track meet?

I had a deprived childhood. I grew up in the backwoods of Texas as a farm boy with 11 brothers and sisters. The things I needed were not there, and I knew I wanted to promote a better environment for those in DC in food deserts with no access to vegetables. Those kids who don’t have the chance to compete in city or state meets can do it here—especially now that it’s late spring and early summer and school is coming to an end. We have a pledge we say during the opening ceremony of the meet. A couple of lines go like this: “I am an athlete, I train to do my best; health is a prime obligation in my life, as is friendship to others . . .”

You set the world record for the 200-meter dash back in ’68. Is there a particular event you especially like to watch?

I like to keep an open mind. Rather than looking at the events themselves, I pick out competitors within that event and consider them. Why did they choose the mile? Why not this race? I think more about the importance and the need for that particular race because of the kids who chose it. But I actually do like the 400. I don’t like to run it, but I like to watch it! It’s just such a difficult race.

As an advocate for the well-being of children, how do you keep yourself healthy these days?

I eat everything I can! But really, I can’t not look like an athlete when I’m teaching these kids how to be healthy, so I do a lot of running and walking. Interval workouts, too—eight minutes on, eight and a half minutes off.

Can you recall a favorite moment or memory of past meets?

For me, it’s the moment I arrive at the meet, knowing that there are people who came who care about what they’re doing. It is so interesting to see. It’s such a family-oriented event, and this year we have so many hospitals backing it. We’ll have tents where you can get glucose testing, diabetes testing, get cholesterol levels checked out—HIV testing, too. That’s a big one. It’s all free for families who couldn’t afford it otherwise, because testing is expensive. The health fair will be going on right alongside it during the meet, where everyone can also learn about nutrition.

What do you hope for when it comes to the future of the Youth Meet? Any big plans?

To keep growing. This year, there are about 27 club teams and ten unaffiliated teams. There are 500 sprinters competing in the 100-meter dash alone, which is a lot. Last year there were about 864 runners, and this year we’re expecting 1,000 to 1,200 athletes. We’re also in the process of trying to expand to two more cities: New Orleans and Louisville, Kentucky.

The Tommie Smith Youth Track Meet happens this Saturday, May 4, at Spingarn High School Track Facility from 8:30 AM to 4 PM.