Lee Evans will always be remembered not just for his world-class speed, but also for showing exceptional courage.
It was at the Mexico City 1968 Olympic Games that Evans, then 21 years old, stepped onto the world stage. The previous year he had become the first person to break the 45-second mark in the 400-meter race. Evans lowered the mark to 44.06 in the U.S. Olympic Trials and then became the first person to break the 44-second mark when he set a new world record of 43.86 seconds in the Mexico City Games final. That mark stood for 20 years.
Evans’ historic run came at a time of significant unrest in the United States. He was a founding member of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, as Black athletes protested for racial equality. Two days earlier, Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith – also OPHR members – finished first and second in the 200-meter race; at the medal ceremony, they wore high black socks to the podium and, wearing a black glove, each raised one fist during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.
Carlos and Smith were expelled from the Olympic Village for their protest and Olympic officials cautioned other athletes about making such public protests.
After the clean sweep of the medals in the 400, Evans and fellow Americans Larry Smith and Ron Freeman wore black berets to the medal podium, which they took off during the national anthem.
Evans added another gold medal in the 4×400-meter relay and he qualified for that event in the Munich 1972 Olympic Games as well. But two suspensions and an injury prevented the United States from fielding an entry in that race.