- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 5, 2012

It was early Saturday morning in Northwest D.C., and the stands were already packed with spectators. Meet organizers were hard at work, as 800 athletes from 31 track clubs and teams gathered on the astroturf infield at Spingarn High School, after a stirring opening ceremony that paid homage to the actual Olympic Games.

While most of the athletes began warming up and pinning numbers on their uniforms, Brendan Epton, 13, and David Kpognon, 10, had something else in mind. Clad in blue and white uniforms representing the E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, the two young 200 and 800 meter runners trekked across the infield, wanting to be the first athletes that day to meet legendary Olympic champion Tommie Smith.

Smith, along with John Carlos, forever changed social activism and race relations in the United States when, after winning gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200 meters, raised black-gloved fists on the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City in protest of racial injustice.

Brendan and David introduced themselves, and Smith shook their hands, and the three chatted for a brief moment before the boys ran back to check in with their coaches. In a brief on-the-spot history lesson, coach Darnell Almanzar showed the boys the famous photo of Smith and Carlos on his cell phone, and told them a little about the man who’s event they were now a part of.

“This is our power now, these kids” Smith said.

“It’s our responsibility as parents, and grandparents, as coaches and mentors to provide the proper avenues for our kids to get motivated, and get them off the couch.”

In an Olympic year, the sport of track and field grows significantly in interest and popularity in youth programs across the country. The Tommie Smith Youth Track Meet, now in it’s tenth year, is one of the sport’s signature events.

The track meet is a just a part of the Tommie Smith Youth Program, which Smith began 10 years ago in Oakland, California. It has now expanded into several different cities, including Washington D.C., which has held the meet for the past four years. The program also holds clinics every Saturday from January to June.

“We guide kids in education, health and wellness, camaraderie and friendly competition,” Smith said.

“Kids have to be motivated, and we have to guide them along the right path. We save lives, because we give these kids something to do besides hit the streets.”

Smith and his wife Delois have nine children, and 12 grandchildren.

“This is a way to use Tommie’s name and use track and field as a tool to do something positive for kids,” Delois Smith said.

“When we started this program, we found so many kids who were struggling with obesity, hypertension, diabetes. We’re helping to combat those problems.”

Kids from ages two to five participated in a 50 meter dash, while age groups ranging from six to 18 competed in the 100m, 200m, 800m, 1500m, short hurdles, long hurdles, the 4x100m, and the 4x400m relays. The field events consisted of the javelin, shot put, long jump and high jump. The meet was sponsored by the 100 Black Men of Greater Washington D.C, AARP, Fed-Ex, and Aetna.

The top three finishers earned gold, silver and bronze medals which were presented by Smith at a podium in the center of the field. By the end of the day-long event, athletes, coaches and parents were all gathering in the infield to get Smith’s autograph, and pose for pictures.

Leahseneth “Lacey” O’Neal, who was a member of the 1964 and 1972 Olympic Teams, helped organize the meet and coordinated the medal presentation. O’Neal ran the 80m low hurdles in 1964, and the 100m high hurdles in 1972, making it as far as the semi-finals in both of her Olympic appearances.

“I’m trying to encourage us to start to get open runners to come to this meet,” O’Neal said. An open runner is not affiliated with a track club or a team.

“That way, we could start drawing some some Olympic caliber talent along with the young kids. During an Olympic year there’s more hype, but once these kids get involved in track and field, they love it.”

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