Lee Evans, who won two gold medals at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City and was part of the Black protests against perceived US racism, died on Wednesday. He was 74 and no cause of death was revealed by the USA Track and Field organization, which did not provide further details.
But the San Jose Mercury News in Evans’s hometown quoted friends as saying that he died in a hospital in Nigeria after suffering a stroke. Evans allegedly collapsed at a friend’s dinner party last week, according to the news outlet.
Evans joined several other athletes in raising fists and wearing black berets on the winners stand at Mexico City, considered a shocking political move at the time. Evans’s protest followed that of both American 200-meter sprint medalists, Tommie Smith (gold) and John Carlos (bronze), who raised fists in the air while “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played and American flags were raised.
The protests have since become symbolic of the rise of the Black power movement in the US, and became the story of those Olympics. Since then, other protests, including kneeling and raised fists, have become common at athletic events. In fact, the Tokyo Olympics has banned political protests at its events, although enforcement of that rule may be difficult.
Evans was one of several Black athletes who had threatened to boycott the Games. His protest at the games after Smith and Carlos was amplified since they were suspended and then expelled for life from the Olympics for their protest.
Evans briefly considered whether he should not participate in his two scheduled races — a 400-meter run two days later, and a 1,600-meter team relay three days after that.
But Carlos assured him to go ahead, and Evans went on to two golds and two world records. He won his first gold in the 400-meter in 43.86 seconds, a record that stood for 20 years, and his second gold anchoring the United States team in the 1,600-meter relay, run in 2 minutes 56.16 seconds, a record that lasted for 24 years.
In the 400-meter race, three Black Americans won, and all three wore black berets on the medal stand and raised their fists. However, they lowered them and removed the berets when the national anthem began and the American flags were raised.
Those actions were seen as conciliatory by the International Olympic Committee, which did not penalize or reprimand the three sprinters.
The members of the 1,600-meter relay American team staged no demonstration during the awards ceremony, although Evans refused to shake hands with an Olympic official.