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“If they’d boycotted the games, nobody would remember them,” Caruthers said. “But now, here we are 40 years later, and people are still talking about it.” – Ed Caruthers
Ed Caruthers never set out to be an Olympian. His event, the high jump was his third favourite sport, behind football and basketball. But once he got a taste of Olympic competition, the focus of his life changed.
Caruthers attended Bolsa Grande High as a freshman and sophomore, but after his parents moved to Santa Ana, he transferred to Santa Ana Valley, the only county high school with a significant number of black students.
Growing up in Santa Ana, Caruthers never watched the Olympics. He figured the only way he’d ever see the world would be to join the military. But after finding out and understanding what the Olympics was all about, he wanted nothing more than to represent his country.
The summer after graduating from Santa Ana Valley High School, Caruthers made the 1964 Olympic team. He went on to finish 8th at that Olympics.
“I remember watching that medal ceremony, watching people up there I knew I should be jumping better than and listening to the Russian national anthem,” Caruthers said. “I was so touched by the Olympic spirit, I remember setting a goal right then: I would be back in the 1968 Olympics and I’d be on that podium.”
After placing eighth in the 1964 Olympics, Caruthers developed into an exceptional high jumper while attending the University of Arizona. In 1967 his only defeats were at the NCAA and the AAU and on both occasions he lost only on the count-back, never being out jumped.
Caruthers was instrumental in getting the athletes to compete rather than boycott the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City which was the initial plan agreed upon by some of the African American athletes. He was sympathetic to the cause, but urged them to compete. Doing so he said, would give them a platform to address these social issues and others around the world. If they were to boycott the Olympics they would be considered deserters and forgotten.
In the end, Caruthers’ argument won out. Some athletes agreed they would wear black socks during competition as a political statement.
The day before Caruthers was to compete, Smith and Carlos won the gold and bronze respectively in the 200 meter race. Back at the Olympic Village, he watched their medal ceremony on the TV. Like everyone else, he too was surprised to see them raise their black gloved fists into the air.
Caruthers had planned to wear black socks in his competition at the 1968 Olympics in support of the silent protest and Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). However, since the only black socks he had brought were nylon, when he went to jump, his foot would kind of slide. Thus he elected not to wear any socks.
Caruthers jumped incredibly and would have captured the gold medal if it wasn’t for Dick Fosbury whose unique form of jumping, now dubbed the “Fosbury Flop” has revolutionized the sport. Both Caruthers and Fosbury cleared 7-feet, 3 ½ inches (2.22) but it was Fosbury who went on to clear on his third attempt one notch higher.
Caruthers came back from Mexico City and accepted an invite to attend training camp for the Detroit Lions as a wide receiver. He went on to play only one year for the team.
Returning to Orange County, Caruthers got a job with the Garden Grove Unified School District, teaching physical education to physically and mentally disabled students.
“It made me think of all the abilities I’d been given and how hard they (students) had to try to make just a little progress…It was both frustrating and incredibly rewarding to be part of.”
In 2007, Caruthers retired from Garden Grove district after four decades coaching kids.
Caruthers currently continues to coach track, at Santa Ana College. He’s coached two state champions in the high jump, neither of whom have beat his school record from 1965, which still stands.
He is also active in Gentlemen West of Orange County, a group of 10 black professionals and businessmen who assist young people in clearing today’s formidable financial hurdles. Originally founded to pool financial resources for investment opportunities, Gentlemen West branched out and started investing in financially disadvantaged community college and college students in Orange County.
“Nobody gets any place without help, assistance and advice,” Caruthers said. “We decided to pool our knowledge.”
Caruthers remains close friends with several of his teammates from the 1968 Olympics, including Carlos and Smith. Caruthers is extremely proud of his long time friends. There courageous efforts during a time of oppression and suffering are now being recognized and applauded.