SAN PABLO -- Tommie Smith selected a half-dozen young sprinters from the crowd of perhaps three dozen kids gathered around him, and directed them to the track at Contra Costa College.
"You're going to run the 200," he said. Then, smiling broadly: "I've got $500 for anyone who can break 19.5."
The closest Smith ever got was 19.83 in the finals off the 200-meter dash in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City -- a world record that stood for more than a decade. That day is remembered more for what happened after the race. At the medals ceremony, Smith, the gold medalist, and U.S. teammate John Carlos, the bronze medalist, bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists to protest racial inequities in the United States.
They created international headlines and were summarily kicked off the U.S. Olympic team.
That fist is now Smith's entree into the lives of children whose parents are too young to remember the 1968 Olympics. Through his foundation, the Tommie Smith Youth Initiative, Smith helped coach a track and field clinic, named in his honor, for members of nearly two dozen area track and field clubs. The San Jose State graduate, who now lives in Stone Mountain, GA, will be back in June for the Tommie Smith Youth Track Meet at Edwards Stadium on the UC Berkeley campus.
The youth initiative is a program Smith says he can take anywhere -- he's taken it to Washington, D.C., Louisiana and France -- as long as there is strong community
"We teach health, wellness, sleeping, eating, hypertension, diabetes, obesity and things that will keep them healthy," he said. "Not only the mind, but physically. It's an educational process with some sociology background."
He comes by the approach honestly. After his track career and a short stay with the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals, Smith earned a Ph.D. He taught and coached for 27 years. He was regarded more like a rock star Saturday, with kids lining up to have him autograph their sweatshirts, T-shirts and shoes, which he did with deliberate, precise strokes of a marker.
"He is extremely generous with people," said Dedan Ji Jaga, head coach of the Richmond Grinders track club, which hosted the event. "He goes to extremes for the kids. He's very inspirational. Every time I see him I get tinges of emotion."
Nowhere does Smith look more at home than on the track, where he gave advice on turning the corner in the 200-meter run.
Among his tips: Run with a loose face.
Smith and Carlos were regarded as pariahs when they returned from Mexico City in 1968. In 2005, they were immortalized in a statue on the San Jose State campus. Asked when people finally got over his black-gloved salute, Smith answered that not everyone has.
"The important thing to me was even though it was bad then, you take the good out of the bad," he said. "In Mexico City, it wasn't hate. It was faith. I did it because I thought there was a need. And all this (the youth clinics) is what happened because of the victory stand."
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/garyscribe.