Spartan Gold Standard: Remembering Lee Evans (1947-2021)

Above: Watch NBC’s TODAY segment “A Life Well Lived” on Lee Evans that aired Sunday, May 23, 2021.

Editor’s Note: This story originally ran on the SJSU Athletics website.

Best known as a 1968 two-time Mexico City Olympic Games track and field champion, Lee Evans, ’70 Physical Education (1947-2021) died at age 74 in Nigeria.

At 21 years old, the Madera, Calif., native was a pillar of San José State’s world-renowned brand known as “Speed City.” As a slender 158-pound college student by his own admission, he won gold medals in the men’s 400 meters and the men’s 4×400 meter relay at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games in world and Olympic Games record-setting times. Mr. Evans is the university’s first and only two-time Olympic Games gold medal winner.

Lee Evans was the first person to run 400 meters under 44.0 seconds with his winning time of 43.86. And, Mr. Evans ran the anchor leg of the victorious USA 4×400 relay team that crossed the finish line with a clocking of 2:56.16. The gold-medal winning 400-meter time remained a world record until 1988 and the 4×400 relay world mark stood until 1992.

Lee Evans with coach Bud Winter

Lee Evans (right) with coach Lloyd (Bud) Winter. Courtesy: SJSU Athletics

The winning performances were in the shadow of controversy. Evans had considered withdrawing from Olympic competition following San José State and USA teammates Tommie Smith and John Carlos were expelled from the Olympic Village. After Smith won the men’s 200-meter dash with Carlos finishing third, both athletes raised a clenched fist in the air during the victory stand ceremony. Approaching the victory stand following his 400-meter victory, Mr. Evans, silver medalist Larry James and bronze medalist Ron Freeman wore black berets as their sign of support for the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

For his gold medal-winning performances, he was named Track & Field News’ U.S. College Athlete of the Year. From 1966 through 1968 and again in 1970, he was ranked #1 in the world in the 400 meters by Track & Field News. Mr. Evans also was ranked in the top-10 in the 400 by Track and Field News in 1969 (second), 1971 (ninth) and 1972 (third).

The 1970 San José State graduate was captain of the Spartans’ 1969 team that won the NCAA Division I Men’s Outdoor Track and Field championship in Knoxville, Tenn. While at San José State, Mr. Evans also was a member of the Spartans’ 1967 world-record-setting 880-yard relay team that included Tommie Smith, Ken Shackelford and Bob Talmadge.

Editor’s Note: Watch SJSU’s profile of the SJSU Speed City legacy

“Social Justice Advocate”

His track and field notoriety runs parallel to his humanitarian contributions in the United States and, particularly, in the African continent.

According to Dr. Harry Edwards, the founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights and San José State graduate, “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.

“He was an originating founder and advocate of the Olympic Project for Human Rights and what evolved in the late 1960’s into an all-out revolt among Black athletes over issues of injustice and inequality both within and beyond the sports arena. In no small measure, today’s athletes can stand taller, see farther and more clearly, and reach higher in pursuit of achievement and change in both sport and society because they stand on the shoulders of GIANTS such as Lee Evans.”

From left to right: Ken Noel, Tommie Smith, Lee Evans, Harry Edwards, San José State student body president James Edwards.

1967 – The Olympic Project for Human Rights first/organizing meeting. From left to right: Ken Noel, Tommie Smith, Lee Evans, Harry Edwards, San José State student body president James Edwards. Courtesy: Dr. Harry Edwards

Mr. Evans shared his knowledge and experiences in track and field with interested parties of all ages domestically and internationally.  There were college coaching appointments at San José State, the University of Washington, and the University of South Alabama.

He served as the director of athletics for Special Olympics International from 1988 to 1990. Evans provided technical assistance to Special Olympics programs in the United States, its territories and 90 countries around the world.

The United States Information Service (U.S.I.S.) agency appointed Mr. Evans as a track and field clinician for Sports America as a leader of coaching clinics throughout the world, particularly, in developing countries.

Editor’s Note: Read the 2018 Washington Square feature on Lee Evans

The Humanitarian – Nelson Mandela Award Recipient

A Fulbright Scholar, Mr. Evans spent much of his post-competitive life on the African continent as a track and field coach and a humanitarian. He was a professor of biomechanics at the Cameroon National Institute of Youth and Sports and an associate professor of physical education at the University of Ife in Nigeria.

Mr. Evans coached the national track and field teams of Qatar, Cameroon and Nigeria.

In 1991, he was a recipient of a Nelson Mandela Award given to those who “…stood for the values of equality and friendship and respect of human rights, against apartheid and any form of racism.” In the 1980’s, Mr. Evans was focused on the Madagascar Project which included providing a fresh water supply, power, and electricity; creating economic self-sufficiency through profitable cash crop farming; improving the transportation system; and access to medical care.

Lee Evans in 2016

Lee Evans at a Hall of Fame banquet in 2016. Evans won two gold medals at the 1968 Olympics. Courtesy: SJSU Athletics

More Honors

A member of the San José State Hall of Fame, he also is enshrined in the United States Olympic Hall of Fame, U.S.A. Track and Field Hall of Fame, the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, the city of San Jose Sports Hall of Fame, and the African American Athletes Hall of Fame. Mr. Evans also was a 1994 recipient of a NCAA Silver Anniversary Award honoring exceptional student-athletes for their life’s work 25 years after completing a college career.

“The first time I walked into the old gym at SJSU as an undergraduate, I learned of the legend of Lee Evans,” said Marcos Breton (Class of 1986, journalism) and a Sacramento Bee columnist. “The records of Mr. Evans were emblazoned on the wall along with Tommie Smith, John Carlos and other world class sprinters and Olympic champions who were Spartans. His Olympic gold medal will always be a source of pride for all Spartans. I’m honored to have met a kind and truly humble man and like many, I’ll never forget the grace with which Lee Evans represented his country and our university.”

San Jose State to Build Recreational Field, Tribute to Speed City Legacy and Parking Garage

Editor’s Note: Updated on August 26, 2019: To clarify San Jose State Student Union, Inc. donation in the amount of $2.5 million dollars is for the field.

Media contacts
Lawrence Fan, SJSU Athletics media relations director, 408-924-1217, lawrence.fan@sjsu.edu
Robin McElhatton, SJSU media relations specialist, 408-924-1749, robin.mcelhatton@sjsu.edu

Bud Winter Field Track at 10th and Alma.

Future south campus.

San Jose State University will break ground in June on a project to build an intramural recreation field, walking path and multi-level parking garage at the university’s Bud Winter Field. San Jose State plans to build a special tribute at the site to honor those known as the “Speed City” athletes and their legendary track and field coach, Bud Winter.

The new recreational field will be used by thousands of San Jose State students. This field will be home to SJSU clubs, intramurals, ROTC practice, kinesiology classes, marching band practice, Greek life competition and other activities. A walking path around it will be open to the community members who currently use the Bud Winter Field track at South 10th Street and East Alma Avenue, which will be removed.

The university recently informed its track and field athletes that it cannot proceed with a previously announced plan to build a new track at the site, where some of its world-class Speed City athletes once trained. “After requesting proposals for construction of a track atop a planned multi-level parking structure, university administrators learned the track would cost up to $20 million more than originally anticipated, due to building-code changes,” said Charlie Faas, the university’s vice president of administration and finance. After learning of the higher-than-expected track cost, the university considered whether to build a replacement track at the university’s park-and-ride lot in the area—but the space was insufficient.

San Jose State’s Student Union, Inc. originally gave a $3 million donation for a new field. Thereafter, the $3 million was allocated as such: $2.5 million for a new field that would be used for a wide variety of student uses and $500,000 for a new softball field.

“It was heartbreaking to me to realize that we wouldn’t have a new track facility,” said Marie Tuite, the university’s director of intercollegiate athletics. “As the enduring success of our athletics programs remain a key priority and a point of pride for the university and alumni, we are committed to sponsoring all 22 sport programs,” Tuite said. “We will continue to support and fund activity for our men’s and women’s track programs off campus.”

As the 51-year-old Bud Winter Field facilities have long fallen into disrepair, the men’s and women’s track teams have been practicing at San Jose City College for some time. “Our current goal is to secure a long-term agreement there or at another facility to ensure our track and field teams have a high-quality venue at which to practice and train for competition,” said Tuite.

History of SJSU’s Two Tracks: Bud Winter Field and 7th Street Track

Coach Bud Winter (left) and legendary John Carlos on the Bud Winter Field Track at 10th and Alma.

Before the Bud Winter Field was built in the late 1960s at South 10th Street and East Alma Avenue, Winter trained many world-class caliber athletes at another track, located nearby at South 7th and East Humboldt streets on the South Campus. “San Jose State’s track and field legacy gained a sprinter’s momentum when Bud Winter was named head coach in 1941. For three decades, he attracted record-setting athletes that were ranked among the best in the world. These athletes made Speed City famous competing at the old 7th Street track, later training and racing at Bud Winter Field on 10th Street and around the world for nearly 40 years,” said Lawrence Fan, the university’s athletics media relations director.

Years later, the Koret Athletic Training Center was opened in 2001 over a portion of the old 7th Street track, for use by San Jose State’s intercollegiate athletics program. That building also now houses the Jeff Garcia Hall of Champions, which honors all those inducted into San Jose State’s Sports Hall of Fame—including track and field stars.

The Simpkins Stadium Center also now covers a portion of the old 7th Street track, Fan said.

Bob Griffin (left), Coach Bud Winter, and Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith at Spartan Track previously located at the corner of 7th and Humboldt.

Some Speed City athletes who qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team trained at Bud Winter Field in preparation for the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics. Those Games are remembered in part for San Jose State track stars Tommie Smith, a gold medalist in the 200-meter dash, and John Carlos, a bronze medalist in the same event. They raised their fists atop the medals stand in Mexico City to protest racial injustice for African-Americans.

Today, the iconic sculpture of Smith and Carlos—with fists raised—represents a silent stand for human rights and is prominently located on the university’s main campus to honor their courage. Their athletics feats and others associated with the Speed City era are on display at the Jeff Garcia Hall of Champions inside the Koret Athletic Training Center and at the SJSU Special Collections and Archives in the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library.

In addition to the Sports Hall of Fame displays located on South Campus and the sculpture of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the main campus, San Jose State will continue to honor the Speed City athletes’ legacy by building a special tribute at the site where Bud Winter Field currently stands. The university’s track and field stars have demonstrated athletic excellence, and also made a stand for human and racial equality on the world stage.

“The ’60s was a time of civil unrest throughout this country,” Tuite said. “The actions of the men’s track and field athletes served as a benchmark for social justice and for belief in human equality. SJSU athletes led the movement in the ’60s, and that moment has stood the test of time. This university was built on their voices of democracy, fairness, inclusion and love—and we will honor those voices every single day.”

A Plan for Multi-level Parking Garage

San Jose State has approximately 20,000 commuters who drive to campus each day. With only 5,121 parking spots in three on-campus parking garages and approximately 1,200 parking spots on campus surface lots, there is a real and existing parking challenge. The proposed multi-level parking garage will provide 1,530 new parking spaces which will offer much-needed parking for students, faculty and staff. In addition, the new structure will raise money from parking fees paid by fans of the San Jose Giants minor league baseball team and by those who use the Solar4America Ice venue, also known as “Sharks Ice,” near the university’s south campus, Faas said.

Pending completion of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) study and final approval, construction of this new facility is scheduled to begin in June 2019 and is expected to open in the fall of 2020.


About San Jose State University

The founding campus of the 23-campus California State University system, San Jose State provides a comprehensive university education, granting bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in 250 areas of study—offered through its eight colleges. With more than 35,000 students and nearly 4,370 employees, San Jose State University continues to be an essential partner in the economic, cultural and social development of Silicon Valley and the state, annually contributing 10,000 graduates to the workforce. The university is proud of the accomplishments of its more than 270,000 alumni, 60 percent of whom live and work in the Bay Area.

About San Jose State Athletics

San Jose State sponsors 22 (nine men’s and 13 women’s) NCAA Division I intercollegiate sports programs for approximately 470 student-athletes annually. In football, the Spartans are a member of Division I’s Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), the NCAA’s highest level of competition.

The Spartans’ primary conference affiliation is with the Mountain West. Selected teams belong to the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF), the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) and the Golden Coast Conference (GCC).

San Jose State has 10 NCAA team championships and 52 NCAA individual titles. Sixty-two (62) Spartans competed in one or more Olympic Games. San Jose State athletes have won seven gold, six silver and seven bronze medals at the Olympics.

Annually, about one-third of the student-athlete population earns either institutional, conference or national recognition based on outstanding academic performance.

SJSU in the News: “Speed City” Runner Scheduled for Brain Surgery

Olympic legend Lee Evans to undergo surgery for brain tumor

Originally published by the San Jose Mercury News Dec. 22, 2011.

By Elliott Almond

Lee Evans, a 1968 Olympic champion and member of the famed “Speed City” runners from San Jose State, is scheduled to have brain surgery Thursday, this newspaper has learned.

Evans, 63, has a large tumor in the pituitary gland area of his brain, according to an email circulated to Olympians from the Mexico City Games. Former Speed City star John Carlos said Evans had suffered from an aneurysm, a weakening in a part of the wall of an artery that supplies blood to the brain.

“All of our teammates want to go out and say some prayers,” Carlos said. “There’s not too much we can do but pray.”

Evans, who lives in Nigeria, was visiting his sister in the Bay Area when the problem was discovered. “It is a blessing he is here in the United States,” Carlos added.

Evans, an Overfelt High alum, has been trying to raise capital to build a school in Liberia, the subject of a story last year in the Mercury News. The sprinter-turned-track coach said at the time he had purchased 13 acres outside of the Liberian capital of Monrovia to build a school.

Evans wanted to sell his Olympic gold medals in the 400 meters and the 1,600 relay in Mexico City to raise $250,000 for a school. He wants to dedicate the facility to his wife, Princess, a former Liberian refugee who grew up without formal education.

“I don’t need the medals,” he said. “I need money to build the school.”

Evans recently decided to start a commercial farm as a way to pay for the school. Last week, he went to Kentucky to visit ’68 Olympian Tom Lough — a modern pentathlete — who introduced him to local farmers.

Evans began working for the United Nations in Africa after resigning as track and cross-country coach at the University of South Alabama in 2008. He is semiretired but continues to coach kids in southern Nigeria.

Evans’ social consciousness matured in the late 1960s at San Jose State, where many “Speed City” sprinters were as concerned with racial discrimination as with winning medals. In Mexico City, Spartans sprinters Tommie Smith and Carlos finished first and third in the 200 meters, then entered Olympic history with their controversial protest during the medal ceremony.

Evans had planned a similar protest the next day after becoming the first person to run faster than 44 seconds in the 400 meters. He wore a black beret symbolic of the militant Black Panther Party on the podium. But he didn’t wear his black glove or black socks as Smith and Carlos did the day before.