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Olympic 400m Champion and Activist Lee Evans Dies at Age 74

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USA athletes Larry James, left, Lee Evans, center, and Ron Freeman are shown after receiving their medals for the 400m at the Mexico City Olympics in October 1968. Photograph: AP

By Michael Houston |

American 400 meter Olympic champion and anti-racism activist Lee Evans has died at the age of 74 after suffering a stroke.

The passing of Evans, who won Olympic gold in Mexico City in 1968, was confirmed by USA Track and Field.

It had been reported by the San Jose Mercury News that the 74-year-old was unconscious in hospital in Nigeria following a stroke last week.

Evans won the men’s 400m at the 1968 Olympics in 43.86sec, shattering the world record of the time.

Evans was the first person to run under 44 seconds in the event.

He then broke the 4x400m world record with Vince Matthews, Ron Freeman and Larry James as the United States won gold later at the same Games. 

Both world records stood for two decades, with Evans’ individual 400m mark being broken by compatriot Butch Reynolds in 1988.

As important as his speed on the track, Evans was a founding member of the Olympic Project for Human Rights and campaigned for human rights before and during the Games.

Before his gold-medal-winning run, Evan was said to be planning to withdraw from the 400m final after Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked out of the Olympics over their black power salute on the men’s 200m podium.

However, Smith and Carlos convinced him to run.

A US official warned 400m runners not to stage a similar protest to Smith and Carlos, as there were concerns the nation would be kicked out of the Olympics.

Evans led an all-American podium with James and Freeman, and all three wore black berets in support of the Black Panther Party to the medal ceremony. 

They removed them for the national anthem, knowing they had to still run the relay later in the Games.

After missing out on individual qualification for the Munich 1972 Olympics, Evans was supposed to be part of the 4x400m relay team for the Games, but the US could not field a team after Matthews and Wayne Collett were sent home by the International Olympic Committee for their own podium protest.

Matthews and Collett turned sideways to the American flag, standing together on the top spot, twirling their medals and stroking their chins, with Collect later saying that as an African-American he did not believe the words of the US anthem to be true.

Evans later coached and directed athletics programmes for decades, working in six African nations before accepting a position as head cross country and track and field coach at the University of South Alabama.

He was inducted into the US National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1983.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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