"This isn't going to work, Johnny," Tommie said, his features worn. His face was so stark, his eyes so stern, that his emotions barely seemed to peer through them.
"What do you mean, it's not going to work? We made a public statement. All we've got to do is stick to it and-- "
"Don't you watch the news? They're making us look like extremists. Saying we’re intimidating, short-tempered, and our demands won't be answered. We're losing support." Part of me knew that he was right. After the IOC withdrew their invitations from South Africa and Rhodesia, meeting one of our demands, the boycott became stagnant. Still, another part of me wanted to push through and stand behind everything we'd worked for.
"You backing out on me, Tommie? If we stop now, after everything we said to the media, we're going to make ourselves look like a couple of cowards."
"Listen, I don't care what the public thinks of us, but I do care that this is effective. We need to think of something else, quick."
I was a man of passion. I did everything with a purpose and once I committed to something, I rarely changed my mind.
"So, what then? What could possibly more effective than boycotting the Olympics?"
"Using it as our platform. Anything we do up there will go down in history. Don't forget that."
The idea was chilling. The fact that it came from Tommie caught me by surprise. He was usually one to play it safe, think things through. And although this seemed impulsive, something in his eyes told me he was serious. So we talked about it. Planned the whole thing out. There would be symbolism, defiance. Saying it aloud made me realize how crazy it sounded. When we were finished, I took a hefty swig of my drink.
"Boycotting is one thing," I managed to utter. "Making a political statement will get us banned for good."
"And the death threats. God, they'd never stop."
"Death threats? John, we get death threats just for being black!”
"I have a family to think about." I thought about my two children, my beautiful wife.
"Leave them a legacy. Let your children live knowing you fought for what you believed in."
"There are other ways to fight, Tommie. Ways that won't cost us everything we've been working for since high school." He was silent for a moment. When I looked at him, his jaws were clenched, nostrils flared.
"So you're just going to be the good little negro they want you to be, huh? Run fast, take your medal and your pat on the back, and go home. And then you'll give one of those golden interviews with a smile on your face, look dead into the cameras and pretend we live in a just country."
"How can you say that, Tommie? I've always been at the front of this!"
"Then act like it!"
The people sitting around us became still. Few of them were polite enough to avert their eyes. Tommie looked down at the table and sipped his drink. Then he paused, as if trying to decide if he should say the next thing. "Do this for James." I froze. I was angry at him for using my own suffering against me, but suddenly so motivated to help him.
James Chaney was my best friend. We’d met in our junior track team when we were ten years old. He was the shyest kid I knew, but his mind was always working. Back in elementary school, Coach used to joke that he won all of his races by solving algorithms. "The boy's a running Einstein," he'd say. When he was in deep thought, he'd get this eerie, faraway look in his eyes. Sometimes he'd shut them for a while, as if the answers were floating around in the darkness of his brain. Those were the times when I knew, when everyone knew, that if he broke his focus, those beautiful thoughts may escape. One day in college, he went missing while trying to recruit black voters. Forty-four days later, they found him in a ditch with two other white men, chain-whipped and shot. James was the reason I got serious about running. We would spend hours in his backyard, sprinting until our legs hurt. The first time I tried to run after that, the track seemed monstrous to me. My legs were a burden that wouldn't let me reach ten meters before I was blinded by my own tears. So, when I heard his name, it struck something deep inside me, something I'd buried years ago. Still, I wasn't surprised that Tommie mentioned it. He knew how to manipulate people. A side effect of being smart, I guess.
"Fine," I grunted through closed teeth. "Don't ever bring that up again, Tommie." There was silence for a while while we both sipped our drinks. "You know, this will only work if at least one of us is up there when the anthem comes on. What happens if neither of us gets a medal?" We looked at each other and snickered.
The moment that Tommie reached the ten-meter mark was intense. I was trailing behind him and his long legs hadn't reached the finish line when his muscular arms swung out, embracing a victory that wasn't yet his. My mind was hazy at that moment. Once again, I felt the weight of what we were about to do. I thought harder than I should have. It seemed as though doubt had clouded my mind and vision. So I decided to slow down. Maybe a couple of seconds is all I need, I thought. If I can just get behind a few places…but it wasn’t what I wanted, not really. I didn’t want to back down and let John stand alone. Suddenly, in my peripheral vision, I saw a figure approaching. By then, it was too late for me to pick up speed and Peter Norman floated past me. I cursed myself for letting it happen, punched the air in rage. Immediately after passing the finish line, I came up behind Tommie and slung my arm over his shoulders as he returned the gesture.
"Good job, man," I said between deep breaths.
"I thought you had him," he said, somehow less out of breath than I was. "One second you were behind me and then the next--"
"I know. Wasn't thinking straight."
He nodded, letting me know that he understood. We shook hands as an eager cameraman approached us. I raised my head to look at the bleachers, at the thousands of people cheering us on and looking up to us. I didn't dare smile back because I knew that as soon as we stepped up onto the podium, most of them would see us as their enemy.
In the locker room, my heart beat faster than it had right after the race. Still, I was ready as ever. As we prepared ourselves, I realized something.
"Damn it," I said, searching through my things.
"What is it," Tommie asked.
"My gloves. I left them at the Village."
"Damn it, Johnny," he sighed. "Well, what now?" He put his gloved hands on top of his head as I ran mine through my beard. And then we heard a voice.
"He could wear your left one." It caught us both by surprise, the way it emerged from behind an open locker door. Peter's head peeked out from behind it. "I didn’t mean to frighten you," he said with a thick Australian accent. "Forgive me if I’m wrong, but the salute only needs one hand, doesn't it? So, John could wear your left glove." He seemed to have such a clear understanding of the situation, even though neither of us had ever spoken to him.
"Saluting with your left hand?," Tommie said disapprovingly.
"What choice do we have?," I replied. He took off his glove and tossed it to me, shaking his head. "Thanks," I said, acknowledging Peter. He nodded back.
"I wanted you fellas to know that whatever you're going to do up there, I'll stand with you." It was only then that I noticed the badge on his jacket. OPHR. The Olympic Project for Human Rights was the group of black athletes that had organized the boycott.
"That's good to hear," I said, tapping his shoulder. Tommie shook his hand and thanked him, and then it was time to go. We were led down the long hallway leading to the podium, Tommie and I with our shoes in hand. My heart pounded as we walked through the opening and into the light, where everyone's eyes landed on us. There were cheers at first, which quickly turned to confused murmurs. When the IOC member presented me with my medal, he couldn't look into my eyes. His hands were weak as he placed it around my neck, as if the action pained him.
My heart no longer raced as I stepped onto the podium. I was at peace. I knew that Tommie was right to convince me to do this, no matter how crazy it sounded then, no matter how crazy it was now. We turned to face our flag and there was still the tiniest part of me that wanted to stand there with a smile on my face, put my hands behind my back, and listen to the anthem just like everyone else had. But the bigger, stronger part of me knew that I didn't have that privilege. Not when James died the way he did. Not when my people were being beaten and murdered without consequence.
As the national anthem played my fist shot up, covered in black leather. The crowd booed louder than they had ever cheered. I bowed my head and smiled.
About the Author: Hadassah Amani is an 11th-grade student attending Miami Arts Charter School. She was a Poetry Matters contest finalist and was awarded a gold key and B.I.G. award from Scholastics. In her free time, she enjoys playing instruments and hopes to enter the psychology field as an adult.