Have you ever met one of your heroes? Would you really want to? Would it enchance or hamper your previous thoughts of that person?
Those thoughts went through my mind after reading the story of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day March presented by the Gwinnett United Ebony Society. I was struck by the sense of awe one young lady and her mother had at the chance to meet the march’s grand marshal — former Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith.
Smith won gold in the 200-meter run at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, but his place in history was entrenched by what came after the race. Wearing a black glove, he raised his hand and bowed his head on the victory stand, an act that got him booted from the Olympic Village but solidified him (along with third-place finisher John Carlos) as important parts of the civil rights movement.
Now living in Stone Mountain, Smith took part in Monday’s parade, giving a chance for people to hear and meet the man who once held 11 world records in the sport of track and field. For Carmen Pearson, a 15-year-old aspiring runner, it was a “once in a lifetime” chance to meet an iconic figure.
As a person who has long read about the 1968 Olympics, both from a pure sports standpoint (Bob Beamon set an amazing world record in the long jump, for one thing) and a political bent, I was a little jealous. What a neat chance to meet someone who was in the middle of such an important time in our history.
You wonder how often that will happen for the next generation. For one thing, athletes have become so enlarged (both literally and figuratively) that it’s hard to imagine very many taking the time to participate in a smaller gathering, like the parade in Lawrenceville. For another, you don’t find as many athletes taking a social stand these days, particularly on the victory stand like Smith did.
Smith’s “silent gesture” brought him the ire and fear of many people. It was that antithesis of a marketing ploy, which is why these days you don’t see someone like Tiger Woods take a major stand on any issue. There’s no money to be made in alienating people. From a sales standpoint, it’s always best to stay neutral.
You always run the risk of seeing behind the curtain when you meet a hero, maybe being let down by what you see there. There’s nothing worse than getting a chance to meet someone you idolized (for me it was former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda) only to find the public persona doesn’t jive with the private one.
But there’s always the chance you will have the moment of a lifetime. Just ask Carmen Pearson and her mom.
Email Todd Cline at email@example.com. His column appears on Wednesdays.