As many of our readers of this column know, we take deep dives into the annals of African American history, summarizing the lives of those often unheralded men and women. But this week our attention is more current as we recount the life and legacy of Olympic track star Lee Evans who died on May 19 in Lagos, Nigeria, after a stroke. He was 74.
Ordinarily, recent obits on sports figures are left to our writers in that section of the paper, of course, these are not ordinary times we’re enduring and so this reflection of Evans is offered to lift some of the burden of our sports columnists. They may still weigh in with their impressions later and that will be welcomed.
Meanwhile, Lee Edward Evans was born on Feb. 25, 1947 in Madera, California to Dayton and Pearlie Mae Evans. He was four when his family moved to Fresno, Calif. At a very young age, Evans began developing the stamina and strength he summoned during his athletic career, picking cotton and harvesting grapes. This was work he did with his siblings before and after attendance at Madison Elementary School. Despite the workload, he still had enough energy and speed to compete with other students in track races.
As a student at Central Union High School, he competed in the 660 yard dash and this prepared him for competition at Overfelt High School in San Jose where his family relocated after his mother’s bout with Valley fever. At Overfelt, Evans’ event was the 440-yard dash, and for two years 1964 and 1965 he was undefeated.
But success on the cinderblocks was not the only place where he excelled. He was a top student in the classroom, so much so that at San Jose State University he was a Fulbright scholar in sociology. Under the coaching of Bud Winter, Evans continued to improve and by 1966, as a freshman, he won the 440 yard dash. He would also establish his first world record as a member of a relay team in the 4x 400 in Los Angeles. And that would be the beginning of a four-year claim on the title. He also competed in the 400 meter event receiving his only defeat from teammate, Tommie Smith. Coach Winter often made them practice apart because they were such intense competitors. In a run-up to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, Evans won the 400 meter race at the Pan-American Games in 1967, becoming the first runner to break the 45 seconds barrier.
In the Olympic trials in 1968 at Echo Summit, Calif. Evans set a world record of 44.06 and later surpassed that achievement in the Olympic final at 43.86 seconds. He was 21 and that time is recorded among the top finishes in history. He also won a second gold medal in Mexico, anchoring the 4×400 relay team, establishing a record time that would stand for more than two decades. Evans and two of his relay teammates—in keeping with Black Power protests launched by Tommie Smith and John Carlos—wore black berets symbolizing their political stance with the Black Panther Party. His success continued in 1969 and 1972 with titles in the 400 meter races but in 1972 during the Olympic trials, he finished fourth but was still named to the relay squad. His participation in the event never occurred because two of team’s members, Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett were suspended after demonstrating at a medal ceremony replicating what Smith and Carlos had done in 1968.
While Smith and Carlos were the poster boys of the movement, Evans was a less demonstrative behind the scenes leader and advisor, a veritable driving force in this capacity. Throughout the ordeal in Mexico, the Black Olympians were under duress, and Evans said he received death threats for his involvement in the protest movement, later telling reporters that he would have sped even faster across the finish line if he hadn’t been under such pressure. Even so he was fast enough to eclipse world records.
His political activism that surfaced in Mexico was continued with his membership in the International Track Association tour. As in the past, he was a winner in various races, none more acclaimed than setting a 600 meter world record in Idaho State University’s Minidome. At the age of 33, he was still holding his own in races that virtually had been his since the early ’60s.
After his career burning up the track, Evans was the head of national athletics programs in six countries in Africa before becoming the athletic track and field coach at the University of South Alabama. In 1983, he was inducted into the U.S. National Track and Field Hall of Fame. In Frank Murphy’s book “The Last Protest—Lee Evans in Mexico City,” Evans’s exploits are vividly captured. He was also a recipient of the prestigious Mandela Award.
Another more challenging race began in 2011 when he was diagnosed with a larger tumor in the pituitary gland area of his brain necessitating surgery. He received another less life threatening setback three years later when he was banned from coaching when a teenage Nigerian girl, following his advice, took supplements.
In May, he had a stroke and was hospitalized in Lagos, Nigeria and died shortly thereafter. “Lee Evans was one of the greatest athletes and social justice advocates in an era that produced a generation of such courageous, committed, and contributing athlete-activists,” said Dr. Harry Edwards, founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, in the San Jose State statement. “He was an originating founder and advocate of the Olympic Project for Human Rights and what evolved in the late 1960s into an all-out revolt among Black athletes over issues of injustice and inequality both within and beyond the sports arena.”