James was only 20 when he competed in the Mexico Games, although he had already established a place in sporting history with the astonishing performance at the 1968 Penn Relays meeting which earned him his nickname of “The Mighty Burner”. Running the final leg of the 400m relay final for Villanova University, he recovered a 15-metre deficit within the first 120 metres before finishing 10 metres clear of his Rice University rival in a time of 43.9sec, then the fastest split ever recorded for a single lap of the track. He matched that effort in the Olympic 400m final later that year, beating the world record with a time of 43.97sec but seeing his US team-mate, Lee Evans, take gold in a time of 43.86, which was not bettered for 20 years.
In his Complete Book of the Olympics, David Wallechinsky records how Evans was shocked to find James so close behind him as he entered the final straight.
“I felt faint,” Evans said. “Three steps from the finish, Larry dropped his head. I knew I had it then… Larry ran 395 metres and I ran 401. That was the difference.”
As James recalled, however, when the two men attended their post-race press conference the first 19 questions related to the events of the previous day, 17 October, when his fellow Americans Tommy Smith and John Carlos, respectively gold and bronze medallists in the 200m, had staged their historic podium demonstration against the treatment of black people in the United States, bowing their heads and raising black-gloved fists as “The Star Spangled Banner” was played. It was an action which saw the pair sent home from the Olympic village and banned from future Games.
“When we had the press conference after the race, all anybody wanted to ask about was Tommie and John,” James told the Star-Ledger of Newark last year. “I was thinking, “Doesn’t anybody want to talk about what we just did?”
James might have claimed gold had Evans, who like Smith and Carlos was a member of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, kept to his pre-race announcement that he would withdraw from the final in protest at the way his friends had been treated by the International Olympic Committee. But Carlos’s personal intervention changed his mind.
James, too, spoke up in support of the 200m medallists’ actions, and in the 400m medal ceremony he, Evans and the bronze medallist Ron Freeman conducted their own protest, wearing black socks and black berets ? the emblems of the Black Panther political group ? on the podium. All three raised their fists, too, although when the national anthem was played they removed their berets and stood to attention.
When James revisited the podium after the 4x400m final it was as a gold medallist after he, Evans, Freeman and Vince Matthews had recorded a world record of 2min 56.16sec that would not be broken until 1992. This time, however, there was no conspicuous protest.
Recalling his political activity at the Games, James told The New York Times in 1974: “I was young, and was expected to have answers to all kinds of questions. I went along with people who were my idols. I still respect them, as athletes, but I’m my own man now.” As he told Sports Illustrated in 1991, the 400m and its aftermath had served a dual purpose.
“Pictures of us appeared in Black Panther newspapers,” he said, “and in the main media we’d won for our country. We had something for everybody. We were agents of change, but we were so unprepared. We were suddenly expert on everything, man, on toothpaste. You get caught up in it, the love affair the public has with athletes. You learn how it embraces you, and then you learn how it tires of you.”
James returned to Villanova, earning a business degree in 1970 and then a Masters degree in public policy. He also served in the Marine Corps Reserve, earning the rank of major. After joining Stockton College as athletic director in 1972, he devoted the rest of his career to nurturing new generations of talent and played a leading part in securing a $17m sports complex.
Born and raised in Greenburgh, NY, James was 15 when his mother, Martha, took him to Washington DC in August 1963 for the March on Washington where Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech. “I realised there was more to life than just me and my neighbourhood,” James said in 2004. “There was a world of people that wanted to make a difference.”
George Lawrence James, athlete and coach: born Mount Pleasant, New York 6 November 1947; married (one daughter); died Galloway Township, New Jersey 6 November 2008.
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