If anyone knows of unexpected barriers one needs to conquer in life, it is John Smith.
An outstanding quarter-miler, Smith attended UCLA during the turbulent late ‘60s and early ‘70s and became active in the anti-Vietnam war and black nationalist movements. But Smith kept aim at his goal, to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States, and as the 1972 Munich games rolled around he was favored to finish first in 400 meters.
But then life played one of its tricks: a hamstring injury three weeks before the Games. He struggled to make it to the finals but pulled up around the second turn of a preliminary race.
Smith would also be haunted for years by the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Arab terrorists during the Games.
“Why my Olympic games? Why my games?” Smith asks, shaking his head. “During Seoul people lost medals for taking drugs. Well whoop-de-do. People were losing their lives when I was in the Olympic Games.
“It was like being home during the Watts riots. I was so sick of that stuff, and then I went over there and I’m in a war zone again. I said to myself, ‘Damn, I can’t leave this garbage.’ ”
Now in his fifth season as an assistant coach in charge of sprinters for the UCLA track team, Smith has established himself as one of the most prominent coaches in the world. Four Smith-coached athletes participated in the Seoul Olympics and two, Danny Everett and Steve Lewis, came home with two medals apiece. Lewis provided Smith with some measure of redemption when he won the gold medal in Smith’s event, the 400.
But then another obstacle popped up.
Two weeks ago disgraced sprinter Ben Johnson’s coach, Charlie Francis, implicated Smith and dozens of other current or former athletes during a Canadian government inquiry into use of anabolic steroids. Francis testified that Smith told him that another professional coach, Pat Connolly, asked Smith in 1979 for dianabol for Olympic sprinter Evelyn Ashford.
Smith said he has never taken steroids nor advocates its use by his athletes. Smith points out that during the four months preceding the Seoul games, Lewis, for example, tested negative eight times for steroids. To date, none of the athletes coached by Smith has tested positive for steroids.
“Charlie’s trying to justify why he told his athletes to take drugs and he’s using people such as Evelyn, Pat and myself,” Smith said. “We’re three who have not been tainted, so to speak, about the use of enhancement performance drugs. . . . We’ve done our coaching day in and day out in a very mother and fatherly approach. Charlie’s done it through science and needles and the whole nine yards.
“Charlie’s a very intelligent coach, but he resorted to experimenting with people’s bodies, and that’s a heavy responsibility. Now he’s facing the pitfalls of taking that route.”
Smith met Francis when Francis was a sprinter at Stanford and Smith was at UCLA. Like Smith, Francis suffered an injury before the Munich Games and couldn’t compete.
“When we met in 1980, he (Francis) was more or less into developing athletes though drugs,” Smith said. “I wanted to do it through teaching the artful approach of running and the metaphysical side.”
“Charlie discussed his lack of acceptance of religion and of a higher being. . . . We didn’t agree on anything once we started talking about things that weren’t tangible.
“I’ve known what he’s done. I feel I’m a better coach because I don’t have to use the stuff. There’s only room for one at a time on top. I took my time over the years, and so did he, but he did it out of a bottle and I did it straightforward.”
As the Bruins enter this season attempting to win a third consecutive National Collegiate Athletic Assn. title, another obstacle has fallen into Smith’s path. Everett, who finished third in the 400 meters at Seoul and along with Lewis was a member of the winning U.S. 1,600-meter relay team, has opted to forgo his senior year to pursue commercial endorsements. The Bruins will also be without sprinter Henry Thomas, who has decided to redshirt this season.
Instead of having what Smith and Coach Bob Larsen said would have been the best UCLA team ever--Smith said the Bruins would have had at least 100 points at the NCAA finals--UCLA finds itself in danger of having its string of 40 consecutive dual victories broken.
“I have to start pooling some of the people that were on the periphery last year,” Smith said. “I don’t view losing Danny as a setback. You want to have that kind of dilemma. That means you have great athletes. Hopefully, it may also mean that there’s a great coach in the room.”
Coaching helps remove, as Smith puts it, an albatross that has been around his neck since 1972.
The day after the Munich Games, Smith returned to the Olympic Village to take care of unfinished business. Gone were the bright colors of the Games and summer. The realities of what had happened and the darkness of fall had set in. The village was deserted.
“Everything was desolate. It was a ghostly feeling,” Smith said. “I knew right then that I had work to do. I didn’t know what it was or how I would do it, or what it was for. But I knew it was for a principle and for a reason.”
Seventeen years, a professional football career and an acting career later, Smith has found that reason. His new purpose in life is coaching or, as he prefers to put it, teaching.
Most coaches would boast of “landing” a great recruit, like a Lewis, a sophomore. Smith speaks of “Steve entering my life.”
“I use to go into Pauley Pavilion to listen to John Wooden coach. It was inspiring just to listen to him,” Smith said. “What he talked about transcended basketball. It was about life.
“The real test of how good a coach I’ve been will come when their careers are over. When they become the world’s businessmen or doctors, that will reflect on how good a job I did.”
Smith grew up poor in downtown Los Angeles. His father was a janitor and Smith washed trucks through high school.
The opportunity to go to UCLA gave Smith the opportunity to be exposed to the same level of academics as athletics. A political science major, Smith became involved in the black movements on campus and wore his hair in an Afro.
While at UCLA, Smith set the world record, which he still holds, in the 440 yards (a race seldom run now) at 44.5 and was on two national championship teams. Although he was highly affected by the idealism of the times, Smith never got over-involved when his track career was at risk. Smith laughs when asked if he would have boycotted the Munich games as UCLA basketball player Lew Alcindor did in 1968.
“That was the only place I could express myself,” Smith said. “You couldn’t keep me away if you tied me down. That’s where I drew the line. I felt the revolution was supposed to be about education, about helping young black people, like I’m doing now.
“I think some of the things that happened to us black people was a shame. . . . The very superficial things people look at about each other to put one in one’s place. To say ‘I’m better than thou and thou aren’t capable of hanging with me because thou skin is lighter than mine.’ All that stuff was crap.”
At Munich, his friends and teammates, Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett, stood on the medal dais, having placed first and second in 400 meters. Collett and Mathews were banned from further competition by the International Olympic Committee for talking and fidgeting during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Smith said the three had spoken of some protest similar to the black-power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos four years earlier in Mexico City.
“We were talking about doing something, then my injury threw everything off,” he said.
After Munich, Smith was faced with a common dilemma of the times. Unlike today, amateur athletes were barred from accepting payments for running. Smith was also barred from earning money through his secondary occupation, acting.
So when the National Football League’s Dallas Cowboys drafted Smith in the 13th round in 1973, he jumped at the chance. Smith spent two years on the taxi squad but never played.
In Dallas, Smith encountered another barrier: Southern racism.
“I learned that in order to stay in the business of football in Dallas, I had to learn the art of compromise, which is letting the other guy think he got what he wanted,” he said.
After being cut by the Cowboys on his 24th birthday, Smith ran for the International Track and Field Assn. and in 1978-79 ran professionally for the International Track Assn. in Australia where some runners were given head starts and races were bet on.
Smith attempted to regain his amateur status, which he had forfeited when he signed with the Cowboys and ran in the ITA. He was partially successful. The International Amateur Athletic Foundation restored the amateur status of ITA athletes in 1980. Reports of the time said that Smith’s testimony was a major factor in the IAAF’s decision.
The IOC, however, balked at his requests. It would have been futile anyway. The United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games.
An Achilles’ tendon injury ended Smith’s career in 1980, although he did run competitively once more. In 1984 he ran in a special 400 race at Drake Stadium during a dual meet between UCLA and Texas. At 33, and not having competed in four years, Smith ran a 46.98. UCLA’s Dwyan Biggers won the dual meet 400 in 46.4.
For now, while Smith is concentrating on commitments to the UCLA team and the Santa Monica Track Club, he is also pursuing his acting career, which began as modeling when he was running professional track in Australia. Smith, who is married and has a 3-year-old daughter, has appeared in various sitcoms and had a cameo shot in the movie “Dragnet.” He will appear in a PBS special in June called “The Meeting,” which is a fictional account of a meeting between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and is also working on a movie project dealing with track and field.
“When I was a runner, I complained about the problems. Heck, I was probably part of the problems,” he said. “Now as a coach, I want to be part of the solution.”