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Lee Evans, Record-Setting San Jose State Sprinter and Olympic Champion, Dies at 74

Lee Evans, a record-setting sprinter and social justice activist who grew up in San Jose and won two gold medals at the 1968 Olympics, died Wednesday. He was 74.

USA Track and Field confirmed Evans’ death. Evans’ family had started a fundraiser in hopes of bringing him back to the U.S. from Nigeria, where he coached track, to receive medical care after he suffered a stroke last week, the Mercury News reported.

Evans became the first man to crack 44 seconds in the 400 meters, winning the gold medal at the ’68 Mexico City Games with a time of 43.86. His victory came shortly after his teammates, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, were sent home from the Olympics for raising their fists on the medals stand.

In later interviews, Evans said an official warned him not do anything similar. He and teammates Larry James and Ronnie Freeman took a different approach, wearing black berets to show support for the Black Panther Party and other civil rights organizations.

Smith and Carlos were inducted into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s Hall of Fame in 2019.

Like Smith and Carlos, Evans was a college star on the San Jose State ‘Speed City’ teams. He was also a high-profile member of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which called attention to racial inequality and oppression and spearheaded the protests at the ’68 games.

“His legacy of contributions to sports and the struggle for social justice is indelible and enduring,” tweeted Harry Edwards, the architect of the movement.

Lee Evans, Larry James and Ronnie Freeman (left-right) wear black berets in solidarity with at their medal award ceremony at the ’68 Olympics in Mexico City. (Agence France Presse/Getty Images)

After running the 43.86, Evans anchored the U.S. 4×400 team to a world record of 2 minutes, 56.16 seconds. The 400 record stood for almost 20 years. The relay record stood for 24.

Evans won five U.S. titles at 400 meters and is a member of both the USATF and U.S. Olympic halls of fame.

After he stopped running competitively, Evans spent ample time in Africa, working for the United Nations and also coaching national teams in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. The Mercury News said he was currently coaching high school track in Lagos.

Copyright 2021 KQED