Speed City will rise again, but not before San Jose State University raises $5 million to create a new track and field facility.
Schools official, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, and SJSU and Olympic track legends all graced a makeshift stage Monday to announce the restoration of the men’s track program that put San Jose on the sports map.
To the side of the stage, near the Central Classroom Building, a tent was set up with pictures, awards and complimentary cards reminding the community of SJSU’s vaunted track and field legacy. Donations were not requested Monday, but the university is utilizing previous and current athletes to create a buzz and recruit donors.
Olympic medalists and SJSU alums Tommie Smith and John Carlos, immortalized by the on-campus statue that recreated their black power salute at the 1968 Olympics, both offered praise for the decision to restore the men’s track program and its legacy.
“The people who have tilled the soil to cultivate and plant the seeds are important,” Smith said. “Now we are moving and opening the gate to get into the field and cultivate more so. Once the money is raised, that will move the education along. Sports are education.”
SJSU plans to reinstate the men’s track and field team by October 2018, a little more than 50 years after Smith and Carlos—gold and bronze medal winners in the 200 meters, respectively—made their controversial civil rights stand on the treatment of African Americans at home.
Together, they stood on the medal podium steps and raised black-gloved fists as the U.S. national anthem played. Sports commentator Brent Musberger dismissed the two men as “black-skinned storm troopers” and many conservatives were appalled by an Olympic stage being used for a political protest.
On Monday, Smith stressed that Carlos and he were both students who were frustrated with putting in long hours as student-athletes, held up as celebrities on the track while still being viewed as less than off of it. The statue represents not just their stand, but also our struggle for equality as a society, Smith said.
“We may have been the ones to put the foot on the steps, but when we walked off we carried you with us,” Smith said.
SJSU’s new men’s team, which will join a still existing women’s track program, expects to begin competing in the spring of 2019, which will also coincide with another 50-year anniversary. The SJSU men’s track and field team garnered the nickname Speed City for its consistently stellar athletes, who won the 1969 NCAA outdoor track championships. Due to a reallocation of funding, SJSU discontinued the program in 1988.
New SJSU president Mary Papazian offered welcoming remarks, and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo spoke about the rebirth of a celebrated program.
“It harkens to the day when SJSU students led the world, and this is a program that means much more than simply great accomplishments on the field or around the track,” Liccardo said.
Racism was a hurdle Smith, Carlos and many of their classmates and teammates frequently had to overcome, and the nation’s ongoing discussion of race and the treatment of minorities by law enforcement wasn’t lost on the mayor.
“The conversation in 1968 certainly had a different dimension and context, but the conversation remains the same,” Liccardo said. “It’s a conversation we must continue to have if we are going to achieve what so many of us desire, the dream of Martin Luther King.”
Athletic director Gene Bleymaier said the goal of $5 million would go toward not only the men’s track and field facility, but also it would benefit the women’s program, students at the school and the surrounding community.
The new facility will be dedicated to Bud Winter, the legendary coach who recruited and trained 91 student-athletes to top-10 international rankings. He also sent 27 athletes to the Olympics.
SJSU student-athletes Nicole Iloanya and Jose Pina also spoke in favor of the decision. Iloanya, a triple jumper and sprinter for the women’s team, said that a home track will make training and competing easier. Pina, a long distance runner, noted that the 12-mile commute to practice has sometimes put him and teammates at risk of being late to class. Both discussed the positive exposure having meets and invitationals on campus would bring to San Jose State.
Smith and Carlos received a standing ovation before speaking, and Carlos recalled the surprise many had while the athletes felt something special was taking place on campus.
“Who knew that San Jose would be pushing San Francisco off the map,” Carlos said with a laugh.
Harry Edwards, a SJSU alumnus who organized the Olympic Project for Human Rights that led to Smith and Carlos’ 1968 protest, joined the men on stage and suggested a 21st century men’s track and field program at SJSU will allow a new generation to add to Speed City’s legacy.
All photos by Greg Ramar.