Ex-SJSU runner Lee Evans hopes to sell gold medals
Originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News February 28, 2011
By Elliott Almond
Last year, Tommie Smith tried to sell his famed gold medal from the 1968 Olympics. Now, it’s Lee Evans’ turn.
Evans, the San Jose State runner who won gold medals in the 400 meters and the 1,600 relay in Mexico City, said he hopes to raise $250,000 from the sale of both medals to help build a school in Liberia.
“I don’t need the medals,” he said by telephone from Nigeria. “I need money to build the school.”
Smith couldn’t find a buyer 42 years after his black-gloved salute on the victory stand became one of the most famous moments in Olympic history. Smith asked for $250,000 in a fall auction for his 200-meter medal, but Olympic memorabilia experts estimated the worth to be closer to $10,000.
Evans, however, is encouraged he can get six figures because a member of the “Miracle on Ice” 1980 U.S. hockey team, Mark Wells, sold his Olympic gold medal for $310,700 last year.
Evans, 63, is arranging the sale through Athletes United for Peace, a charitable organization based in New York with which he is affiliated. For sale information contact Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org. (To make a donation for the school project, send checks to AUP, 1070 Park Ave., New York, New York 10128).
Evans once rejected an offer of $60,000 for the relay medal.
“To go through the effort, pain and sacrifice I went through “… people don’t know,” he said. “What motivated me were my African ancestry and what my parents went through” in racially divided America in the 1950s.
“How can I give it away for $60,000?”
The medals have been held for almost three decades by Evans’ former Overfelt High track coach Stan Dowell, who said he has hidden them in his Alabama home.
Now semiretired and living in Nigeria, Evans wants to build a school to honor his wife, who couldn’t get a formal education while living in exile during civil wars that ravaged Liberia throughout the 1990s.
Evans met her two years ago in a refugee camp in Guinea, where he worked for the United Nations after resigning as track and cross-country coach at the University of South Alabama in 2008.
He has purchased 13 acres outside of the Liberian capital of Monrovia to build a school. In the meantime, Evans coaches youths in southern Nigeria.
Evans has a long association with Africa, having directed national track and field programs in Nigeria, as well as Saudi Arabia, from 1975-97. Evans received the NCAA Silver Anniversary Award in 1994 for his work in Africa and Asia. He also was given the Nelson Mandela Award for humanitarianism in 1983.
Evans said he first felt the pull of the continent while studying African-American history in sixth grade in Fresno. The lessons resonated with the student, whose parents had moved to the Central Valley from the South to work the fields.
“I felt his spirit was in me,” Evans said of Africans taken to the United States to be slaves. “I felt I had to come back to Africa for him.”
His social consciousness matured in the late 1960s at San Jose State, where many of the “Speed City” sprinters were as concerned with racial discrimination as winning medals. In Mexico City, Spartans sprinters Smith and John Carlos finished first and third in the 200 meters, then entered Olympic renown with their protest during the medal ceremony. Olympic leaders dismissed them from the Games.
The day after the podium protest, Evans became the first person to run faster than 44 seconds in the 400 meters. He won with a world-record time of 43.86, a record that endured for 20 years. Evans also anchored the 400 relay team to a world-record time of 2:56.16, a mark that lasted 24 years.
At the 400 medal ceremony, he wore a black beret symbolic of the militant Black Panther Party. But he didn’t wear his black glove or black socks like Smith and Carlos the day before. (The beret and glove were stolen from his bag at the Spartans’ track about a half year later.)
After the Olympics, Evans returned to San Jose to finish school and for a few years ran professionally. But he always wanted to coach, borrowing what the legendary Bud Winters taught him at San Jose State.
“Every day when I’m on the track, as soon as I say, ‘high knees,’ it is Bud Winters,” Evans said. “I say ‘high knees’ more than 300 times a day.”
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865 and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.