San Jose State wants to honor its track legacy
Charles Ryan, San Jose State University director of track and field and cross country, stands next to the statue of Olympic medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    San Jose State University students are closer to having a running track of their own to honor legendary athletes who left their mark on history.

    The local college is looking to build the Speed City Legacy Project, which includes a track and legacy center at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. Assemblymember Ash Kalra secured $9 million from the state Legislature, with the total project cost estimated at $25 million. The university is working to raise additional funding. 

    “We have a pretty significant portion funded through the state, and hopefully that will help to loosen up some private funding and foundation resources, as well as public monies so we can make sure we have the resources to get this done,” Kalra told San José Spotlight.

    The Speed City moniker came to SJSU after its athletes competed in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Standing on the podium, medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the air during the awards ceremony in protest of racism and inequality. This iconic moment initiated the Olympic Project for Human Rights and is captured in a statue on the school campus.

    Third year SJSU track athlete Kaiya Johnson said having a track would mean the world to the team. The university currently shares De Anza College’s track, about 11 miles away.

    Johnson is looking forward to the creation of the legacy center.

    “Not only are we going to be focusing on the track, but also social justice… empowering people of color to know there are always outlets,” she said. “Having a legacy center not only gives us the opportunity to educate students at the college level, but also students in marginalized communities who aren’t exposed to what Tommie Smith and John Carlos did for our community. Their legacy represents fighting for what you know is right.”

    Smith and Carlos were sent home immediately following their protest, according to Ernie Clark, SJSU assistant track and field coach—and had a hard time finding work afterward.

    Students hope for change

    For Jay C. Williams, a senior SJSU student and Black Student Union board member, the Smith/Carlos legacy is about being resilient through adversity. He said what these prominent figures in track and field history stood for still resonates today.

    “If the university believes in this new generation of athletes, I really do think there can be a lot of great things that can happen in the future,” Williams told San José Spotlight.

    SJSU senior track athlete Jalen Adams said having a home will lift the team’s morale. He said the courage displayed by Smith and Carlos inspired him to speak out during a Black Lives Matter protest.

    “Knowing what they did… encouraged me to do that,” he said. “Now it’s for us to continue the legacy they built.”

    SJSU students Jay C. Williams and Jalen Adams hope the Speed City Legacy Project happens soon. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    In 2016, the university announced plans to reinstate its men’s track and field program in 2018, 50 years after it ended following the 1968 Olympics. It also planned to build a new track and field venue at the time, but dealt with delays in funding according to media reports. In 2019, after planning to revamp the track program and restore its history, the deteriorated track was instead replaced with a parking garage, said Williams.

    Charles Ryan, SJSU director of track and field and cross country, said the university not seeing the value of the track program was insulting to former athletes. Ryan said the defining legacy of the university is its track and field program. His team needs to be shown the respect other teams have been given.

    “My kids will ultimately, finally, feel wholly valued when we have our own facility,” he told San José Spotlight. 

    Ryan loves the vision of the entire project, but hopes the track will be the priority.

    “These men took the biggest moment of their lives and stood up for racial injustice, stood up for Black Americans,” he said. “They took arrows and daggers, and their lives became worse when they returned as Olympic champions because they chose to show courage on the biggest stage of the world.”

    Kalra said if the Speed City Legacy Project is completed in time for the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, the world will see Smith and Carlos in a new light. He said a state-of-the-art track will ensure athletes can train at a world class level and restore SJSU to its former glory.

    “This will be a chance for us to showcase San Jose State University and the great contributions of Speed City,” he said. “Carlos and Smith deserve their redemption. The country and the world need to know more about their story and the stand they took.”

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

    Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Tommie Smith and John Carlos were stripped of their medals.

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