My Struggle to Be Best—Was It Worth It?
Reflections of an Olympic Track Star
FOR years I had dreamed of this moment, competing in the Olympic Games. It was Saturday, October 17, 1964, the eighth day of the Games in Tokyo, Japan.
Every one of the 75,000 seats in the National Stadium was filled. The streets of Tokyo appeared deserted—practically everyone was at a television set. The time had arrived for the finals of the 200-meter dash.
I lined up at the starting blocks along with seven other sprinters. Each of us had survived the series of elimination heats run on previous days. For this distance, we were the fastest humans in the world.
The pressure was almost unbearable, and it wasn’t just the millions watching that made it so. There was the nationalism. The Games were turning out to be one big competition between the Russians and the Americans. Daily comparisons of medals won by each country flashed world wide. Our schools, mayors, governors, and even the president, had sent telegrams telling us to remember that we were competing for our country, and that our country is best.
The newspapers, too, put pressure on us, counting the medals we were supposed to win. They made it sound as if winning was a life-or-death matter, as though the country would lose its honor if we lost. In fact, Kokichi Tsuburaya, the Japanese marathon runner, did commit suicide after losing. He left a note apologizing for ‘failing’ his country.
So I began to think: ‘I can’t let my country down. I can’t face them back home if I lose.’ I was the 200-meter world-record holder, so they expected me to win.
Blacks, searching for identity, also applied pressure. I was often told how other blacks had lost, and let our people down. So now I had to win for the blacks of America. Yet other blacks exerted pressure to boycott the Games, to show America that it couldn’t win without us blacks.
But mostly I thought about my family and friends. I didn’t want to embarrass them. I was their hero. They supported me; they cheered for me. When I won, they won. When I lost, they lost. Perhaps you may understand this better if I give you an idea of my background.
RISE TO PROMINENCE
I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, the ninth of eleven children. As long as I can remember, mother and dad were separated. Mother worked long hours doing housework trying to support us.
I was always athletic. Since reading and writing were difficult for me, being the fastest kid on the block or the best player meant something; it was a boost in life.
In high school, almost right away I did very well in sports. For three years—1959, 1960 and 1961—I made the All-American High School Track Team. The 220-yard dash was my speciality. I was also selected for the All-State teams in football and basketball for two years.
Ordinarily, college would have been out of the question. But now universities started bidding for my services. I traveled to several campuses around the United States and the universities would try to entice me with gifts. As a result, despite the poverty of my family, I was able to have money in my pocket, and even to drive a Cadillac! I received my driver’s license in the dining room of a bar, without even taking a driver’s test! One of the nearby universities that was trying to recruit me arranged for this.
However, I chose to go to Arizona State University, and quickly gained world prominence in the track world. In my sophomore year I broke the world record for the 220-yard dash. World leaders wanted to meet me and shake my hand. In Moscow I met Nikita Khrushchev. But all the fame and world travel to compete in track meets seemed unreal to me.
Back at Arizona State I enjoyed favored treatment simply because I was a fast runner. People would shower me with gifts—‘sugar daddies’ athletes called them. So I had money all the time, new clothes and a car. Often I would send money home to help out members of my family. Sure, I liked the favors and attention. But I knew it wasn’t proper; we were supposed to be unpaid amateurs. Yet this was the way things were.
Though my abilities brought me praise, just the month before coming to Tokyo I’d been run out of a motel in the southern United States because I was black. The lady hollered at me, “We don’t serve your kind here.” It was late and all I wanted was a place to sleep.
About this same time whites murdered three civil-rights workers in Mississippi. Dogs were being turned on blacks in the South just because they sought a better education. But my world travels convinced me that injustices exist everywhere. In other lands personal freedoms that I took for granted in the United States were often severely restricted.
My heart went out to suffering persons. But what could I do? I realized that the problem in the United States wasn’t just a racial one. When blacks were in control they’d sometimes treat fellow blacks just as badly as whites did. Common sense told me that there really wasn’t anything I could do, and so I decided I wasn’t going to jeopardize my prospects by getting involved.
As for me at that time, everything was going well. When I was a kid we were so poor that I’d go to bed hungry at night, and I didn’t want that again. So I learned to be the well-mannered, mild type of person that the system liked. People often told me: ‘If you just win the big one in the Olympics you’ll have nothing to worry about. Some big company will hire you because you’re an Olympic hero.’ So I just wanted to avoid trouble and win in Tokyo.
Some say I was a ‘natural’ runner, ‘the smoothest sprinter since Jesse Owens was in his prime.’ But let me tell you, I worked hard to develop my ability. It was a struggle to become the best. But if winning in the Olympics would do for me what people said, then I figured it was worth it.
I never felt so much pressure in my life as when we lined up at the starting blocks for the Olympic finals.
I bent down at the starting blocks in Lane Seven. My strategy was to get out in front before we came to the curve, and make the others strive after me, to make them strain a little harder. Because if a person is not running relaxed, he can’t do his best.
The official announced: “On your mark. Get set!” Then the gun sounded: “BANG!” I got a good start. Coming into the curve my thoughts were: ‘It worked! I’m ahead! I’m going to win.’ All I could see was the finish line. I lifted my legs high and stretched out, and there it was. I’d won!
I was in another world. Everything seemed motionless; I was emotionally high. It was a new Olympic record, and it was said I would probably have broken my own world record if there hadn’t been a head wind.
Standing at the top of the victory stand, with “The Star-Spangled Banner” playing, I wanted to be proud of what I’d done for my country. And I did enjoy the thousands cheering. But, at the same time, I realized it was phony. Because the same injustices that had been choking people before I stood there on the victory stand were still around.
I wondered: ‘What’s going to happen to me now that it’s all over? What will my backers do? Will they abandon me? What kind of job will I get?’ I was happy, scared as well as angry—all at the same time.
As I rode back to the Olympic Villages, I took my first real look at the gold medal. It wasn’t what I expected; it was just an oversized silver dollar. I actually asked myself: ‘What in the world! For all these years I have been working hard, and to receive this?’ I was mad, when I should have been happy. It was a real letdown.
A few days later I ran the last 400-meter leg of the 1,600-meter relay. We set a new Olympic and world record, and I received another gold medal. After a trip to Australia to compete in some meets, I returned home.
Hit By Realities—The Consequences
On the way home I focused on the new phase of my life just beginning—getting a job and rearing a family. First, though, along with other Olympic team members, I went to the White House and received President Johnson’s congratulations.
I expected to consider various job offers, and choose the one I wanted. For years people had been telling me that this is how it would be if I won for my country in the Olympics. But this wasn’t true. Everywhere I went people didn’t seem to care that I was an Olympic winner. Oh, they’d like to talk about it. But when it came down to hiring me, they just looked upon me as another black, someone who didn’t fit in with their purposes. Naturally, I began to get bitter.
After a few months, I received a phone call asking if I was interested in playing professional football. I hadn’t played football for two years, since I’d been concentrating on track. But I was desperate for a job, and so said “Yes.” The New York Giants signed me, figuring that with my speed I might be of use.
Well, desperate as I was, I really worked hard and made the team. For three years I did very well, and was for a time defensive captain. One sportswriter said: “Carr, joining the New York Giants, became one of the league’s best defensive backs.”
With just three games left in my third season I injured my knee, and the trainer told me I was through for the year. But later the doctor called and said that the coaches wanted me to play. Controversy developed over the seriousness of the injury, for earlier in the year I had been involved in a racial controversy on the team.
As a result, at the end of the season I was traded. The word was out that I was a troublemaker and couldn’t play when I was hurt. I received similar treatment by the team to which I was traded. So I decided to quit, even though I had made $27,000 the previous year.
I tried, but couldn’t find a decent job. Finally I invested in a fast-hamburger chain, and lost money. I became angry and bitter. People, I felt, were beginning to look on me as a guy who had a chance to make it, but didn’t.
This affected me mentally. I was losing all grip on life. I became a daily marijuana smoker, dreaming how I would be on top again. My wife wanted to help, but couldn’t. I felt that my family (we had two children now) would be better off without me. So I left home.
In time I hit rock bottom morally as a man, coming into association with drug dealers and prostitutes. I started gambling and sniffing cocaine. Having grown up in a Detroit ghetto, I knew many of these people I was now running with. Soon they looked upon me as one of the ‘boys,’ and arranged to set me up as a drug dealer.
After several months, I stopped and took a good look at myself. I had become involved in the very things I had always hated. Everything was negative; I had no pluses going for me. I didn’t know what to do or where to turn. I had a Bible and started to read it, but it didn’t seem to make sense. I decided to return home.
ACHIEVING A WORTHWHILE LIFE
My wife was understanding. And that the children had truly missed me was evident by the look in their eyes. I took a job with the county, working with juvenile delinquents. But soon budget cutbacks were announced, meaning I would be laid off. Because of my pride, I felt desperate again.
With my wife’s consent, I sold some property we owned and used the money to form an advertising agency. My partner was a very talented commercial artist, and I did the public-relations work. People knew and recognized me, and soon I was traveling back and forth to New York seeing clients. The business prospered.
On my returning from work one day, my wife asked if it would be all right if she studied the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I asked, “Why?” She said that the parents of one of her students (she taught elementary school) had given her this book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life. And another teacher had told her that if she wanted to know anything about the Bible, she should ask Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Recently we had talked about various religions, for our boy was nearing school age and we felt it important that he have a religious education. But our discussion hadn’t included Jehovah’s Witnesses. I only knew that they were considered some kind of religious freaks. However, if she wanted to study with them, it was okay with me.
I was working around the clock, but at odd moments my wife would mention things she was learning. A week or so later the husband of the woman she was studying with visited me.
SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT
He spoke of what a beautiful place the earth could be if only people lived together in peace. I agreed. Then he said: “Isn’t it obvious that Almighty God isn’t responsible for world conditions today?”
This surprised me. “If God isn’t responsible, then who is?” I wanted to know.
“Satan the Devil,” he said. And what amazed me was that he opened the Bible and showed me. Second Corinthians 4:4 says: “The god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.”—Authorized Version.
The Witness explained that Satan is “the god of this world.” And this really made sense when he drew attention to the terrible injustices committed world wide. This is Satan’s world and he is influencing its people, the Witness emphasized. And this helped me to understand another scripture I was shown. Jesus Christ said: “The ruler of this world will be cast out.”—John 12:31.
Obviously, humans can’t get rid of the powerful spirit person, Satan the Devil. But God can, the Witness explained. And he will, so that his purpose to create a peaceful earth under his Kingdom rule can be realized. This seemed reasonable. It was really something to think about.
HELPED TO A RIGHT DECISION
The Witness returned a number of times, and if he found me at home we’d have another Bible discussion. I really began to believe what I was learning, since it was right from God’s Word. For instance, I didn’t know that God had a name. Yet right there in the Bible at Psalm 83:18 it says that his name is JEHOVAH. I enjoyed learning such things.
But what the Bible says about Satan’s being the god of this world began to bother me. And especially when it says that Christ’s followers are no part of the world. (John 17:14-16) One reason was that I was involved with politics, a major advertising client being the top black candidate for mayor in Detroit.
So one day I told the Witness: “I know you’re serious; you’re trying to help me. But I’m just too tied up with my new advertising business, and I don’t want to inconvenience you, having you come over when I may not be at home.”
Well, shortly after this I hurt my back and was in bad shape, eventually ending up in the hospital. During this time the Witnesses came to visit me, and they really showed concern. I thought: ‘These people don’t know anything about me. They only know I’m Glenda’s husband, and they’re treating me like this.’ I loved it, though.
Meanwhile, I’d seen changes in my wife. As an example: The little daughter of one of the Witnesses had died, and my wife was really concerned about the mother. I looked at her and thought: ‘She hasn’t ever acted like this before. Why is she so interested in cooking meals for this lady and going over there and helping her?’ These things came to mind as I lay there in the hospital.
In the meantime our advertising business was suffering badly. It had grown to a four-man operation, and I was needed to keep things going. By the time I got out of the hospital the business had so deteriorated that everyone had given up. Again, I was a loser financially.
I knew what type of person I wanted to be—to be able to love and be loved, and to be happy. I saw the changes in my wife, and decided that this is what I wanted too. And what stuck in my mind was that Satan is the god of this system, and that I needed help to fight his influence. So when I got out of the hospital, I called the Witness and told him I wanted a Bible study.
HOW CHANGES WERE MADE
After my first study in December 1972, I went to the Kingdom Hall. Everyone was concerned and glad to see me. And I could see my wife light up, happy that I was there. I remember one of the speakers mentioning how the husband is head of his household, and should take the lead. And I thought, ‘My wife has been doing this, studying with the kids, taking them to meetings, praying with them, and I haven’t been doing anything.’
Next week the kids were sick, and my wife said: “Well, you stay with the kids, I’m going to the meeting.” She didn’t think I wanted to go. But I looked at her and said: “I’m the one who is supposed to be taking the lead. So you stay home with the kids.”
She just looked at me, surprised—but I think she was glad. I felt good too, kind of proud that I was beginning to take the lead. I can count the times that I’ve missed meetings since. They’ve really helped me to make changes that have brought our family happiness.
In the meantime, I was able to find the type of job I always wanted, as advertising executive for a newspaper. I was busy—on the move—people knew me and I knew people, and I began to see how I could make advancement. In fact, I had several additional job offers. But I kept going to the meetings, and it was a good thing because what I learned there really affected my life.
For example, I knew the harm of hard drugs. And I had quit using them. But I was still smoking marijuana. It didn’t dawn on me that it was really wrong, since its use is so common. But at a meeting it was shown how smoking is unscriptural. The Bible says we should “cleanse ourselves of every defilement of flesh and spirit.” It was clear to me that this meant giving up marijuana if I wanted to please Jehovah God.—2 Cor. 7:1.
At another meeting it was emphasized that adultery is wrong. The Bible says: “Let marriage be honorable among all, and the marriage bed be without defilement, for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.” (Heb. 13:4) So I saw that I was going to have to make some deeper changes.
I wanted to please God and so I would go in prayer to him about these matters. But then I read something in The Watchtower about the need always to be truthful with Jehovah. So I told him from my heart that I did enjoy these bad things—and even had looked forward to them—yet that now, above anything else, I really wanted to please him. By thus being truthful with God and relying on him for help, I pulled away from these bad habits. Even marijuana smoking wasn’t as hard to give up as I thought it would be.
It was amazing how much happier I was. I began to have a purpose in life, a direction. My children began to look to me for guidance. We all appreciated Jehovah and the meetings we attended together. It was just wonderful! I enjoyed these happenings and changes that were coming upon me and my family more than anything in the world.
I was convinced we’d found the truth. And I thought that all my friends—who were frustrated, going through problems and mixed up in immorality—would surely want to hear about it. But not one did, not even one. In fact, they started making fun of me, calling me “the preacher.” “Here comes the preacher,” they’d say.
So I could see that these people in the world weren’t really my friends. I wanted as friends persons who loved God. So to symbolize that we had dedicated our lives to serve Jehovah God, my wife and I were baptized May 20, 1973.
I came to treasure above everything else the fine things that were happening to me—my good relationship with God, with my family and with fellow Christians. Although I had an interesting, well-paying job, it divided my interests, and there were bad associations and temptations connected with it. I kept thinking of the scripture: “Bad associations spoil useful habits.” (1 Cor. 15:33) So I quit my job as an advertising executive, even though it had been the type of job I had long desired.
MATERIALLY POORER, BUT RICH
A Witness in the congregation hired me as a painter’s assistant. I didn’t make much money, but I was happy. I wasn’t worried about maintaining an image. I just wanted to serve Jehovah. I knew that he is a real person, the only Person who can straighten out all injustices. Bible evidence—the fulfillment of prophecies, and the Bible’s power to straighten out lives—convinced me of this.
After returning from a large assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1973, I told my wife: “I should be pioneering (doing full-time preaching).” Since we had more property that we could sell, there was nothing to stop me. So I started pioneering.
After a while I thought, ‘We could be of more use where the need for Kingdom preachers is greater.’ By coincidence Fred Cooper, a person with whom I went to high school, called me from Georgia. He is an elder in a congregation there, and he’d heard I’d become a Witness. I told him I was thinking of going where the need was greater. So we ended up selling our home and moving to Georgia.
Pioneering was a real joy, but due to my back problem and the need to get a job to support the family, I eventually had to give up pioneering in May 1975. However, in September I was appointed to be an elder in the local congregation. Since then both my wife and I have done some teaching in elementary school to meet expenses. No, we don’t have much materially, but we are rich in more important ways.
To give you an example, my son takes an interest in spiritual things—he reads the Bible and our Bible study aids. About a year and a half ago, when he was seven, he asked me if he could join the congregation’s Theocratic School. Inside I just bubbled with joy. At his age all I ever thought about was sports, about becoming a big sports star. And I knew Peyton could have been begging me to join a Little League team or something.
WHAT IS WORTH WHILE
I think sports are good—in their place. But right from the start there’s deception. Athletes are idolized as special people—when they’re really only flesh and blood like everyone else. And kids are pushed to excel in sports—it’s actually a business, not a sport. And look at the damage done to youngsters who are put under pressure to be best when most of them simply can’t be.
Even when one becomes the best, it’s a deception. Why? Because it’s not lasting, nor really satisfying. Stars are soon replaced and generally forgotten. Then disappointment, depression and physical problems often follow. What’s worth while then?
Rather than competing with others to be best, helping and serving others is what brings true satisfaction. That is what Christ did. He came ‘to serve, not to be served.’ (Matt. 20:28) Yes, the warm unity that this spirit of unselfishness and love imparts in a family and a congregation is what makes life truly worth while—struggling to be best does not.—Contributed.
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“I received another gold medal”
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“The New York Giants signed me”
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‘I began to study the Bible with my family’