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Finding the story behind the sport: Tom Ratcliffe’s films capture enduring sports moments

While you may not see movie trailers buzzing through the rotary, there is some outstanding filmmaking taking place in Carlisle. Tom Ratcliffe of Concord Street recently released The Stand: How One Gesture Shook the World. The documentary chronicles two African-American medal winners from the 1968 US Olympic track and field team who bowed their heads and raised their fists during the medal ceremony in protest against racism and social injustice. Their actions were harshly penalized at the time, but their message remains resonant today.

The timing of the release was propitious in Tom’s opinion as it came on the heels of protests that resounded across the country after the death of George Floyd. “When we took on the project, we didn’t expect for it to be so timely,” Tom said. “As we interviewed these people, I became more and more mindful of what was going on. We were not only telling a story about a historic event, but telling a contemporary story as well.”

The Stand: A brief synopsis The Stand: How One Gesture Shook the World explores the events that set the stage for African-American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos to present their silent show of solidarity at the Mexico City Olympic Games. The film opens with gripping archival footage that sets the context for their actions, and continues with a series of interviews from runners, journalists and historians who piece together the culture of civil unrest pervading the US at the time.

The film introduces us to elite Black runners like Ralph Boston and Mel Pender, who recount memories of bigotry and racism from their past. Pender, in a particularly poignant vignette, is moved to tears as he recalls an incident while taking his mother to a doctor appointment after he returns home from Vietnam. Selena Roberts of the New York Times noted that black athletes were coming home after serving in Vietnam to find racism unchanged, and maybe worse than when they left. “All they knew was that they were fighting for America, fighting for freedom and fighting for equality. They came back changed and impatient, with a willingness to do something about their deeply segregated community.”

Through a number of interviews we also meet Harry Edwards, a civil rights activist and athlete in his own right who became an inspirational mentor for Smith and Carlos. Edwards recognized that the Olympics provided a powerful international forum for athletes to speak out against racism, and is credited with forming the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) that encouraged athletes to boycott the 1968 Games. Avery Brundage, President of the International Olympic Committee at the time, responded with harsh warnings that any athlete who used the Games to promote personal political messages would be banned from participating. Ultimately the boycott never came to pass.

The Stand provides actual footage of Smith and Carlos in their medal-winning 200 meter race, with a fascinating account from Smith who pulled a muscle in the semi-final race that threatened to keep him out of the final. After the race was over, Smith and Carlos described their last-minute attempt to create some sort of peaceful protest on the medal stand. In stocking feet and donning black gloves and beads, the two runners took the stand, raised their clenched fists and bowed their heads as the National Anthem rang throughout the stadium.

“It wasn’t about destruction and tearing America down or blowing up the Statue of Liberty,” said Carlos. “We were just letting them know that we are a powerful force not just merely on the track but in society. You’re going to have to accept us as being a part of society.”

The fallout from their protest was quick and harsh. The crowd booed the runners off the stand; they were quickly escorted out of the stadium, sent home, and suspended from the US Olympic team. Both runners suffered many personal losses as a result of their actions, but despite the setbacks, both men remain resolute that their simple gesture helped bring awareness to the struggle of blacks and oppressed people around the world.

From producing runners to producing films Tom Ratcliffe knows the sport of running well, having run professionally himself and working as an agent for some of the most successful distance runners through his company, KIMbia Athletics. Tom has also been writing about the world of running, having worked for NBC as a track and field expert for the 2000 Olympics, as well as writing commentary annually for the New York City Marathon, The Boston Globe, Runner’s World and Running Times.

“Working with athletes, representing them—I love that relationship with the athlete,” explained Tom. “As an athlete, you have a goal, you work hard and hopefully achieve it. But they are the ones achieving things. It’s their success. While it’s great to be part of that, you always want to know what it’s like to achieve something on your own.”

“I have always liked to write, and have been really interested in storytelling,” Tom continued. “I see so many athletic-related stories that just scrape the surface of the real story. I want to add depth to them.” Some of his early efforts at storytelling include a blogumentary entitled chasing KIMBIA that documented the lifestyle and training of KIMbia’s marathon runners through a blog platform. Other projects followed, until Tom pitched the idea for a reality TV series that would narrate the exploits of British athletes trying to make the Olympic team.

Tom and his friend Richard Nerurkar developed the original idea for The British Miler in 2012. “We went to London and pitched it to Sky TV and they liked it,” Tom recalled, still a little bit surprised. “I expected them to ask for six episodes at most, but they asked for 12 30-minute episodes. I remember walking out of the office thinking ‘how are we ever going to put together 12 episodes?’” It was Nerurkar who introduced Tom to Sir Roger Bannister.

Roger Bannister Documentary

“I really wanted to do something on Roger Bannister after I met him,” said Tom. Bannister was the first runner to break the 4-minute mile barrier, a seemingly superhuman feat at the time, even though his record lasted a mere 46 days. “Bannister started his running career at Oxford when he was 17 years old,” explained Tom. “He told us that soldiers who were 26, 27 and 28 years old were just coming home from WWII at the time. They were heroic characters to Bannister and he asked himself, ‘how do I match what they did?’ We were able to give some context to the event, with some background on WWII, the hardships Bannister’s family endured, his motivations and why he took on the challenge. When you tell the story from Bannister’s perspective, the achievement is much more meaningful, and it has become an unforgettable moment in sports history.”

Tom completed the documentary in 2014 in honor of the 60th anniversary of Bannister’s record. He successfully pitched the film to the BBC for distribution in 2016. Bannister: Everest on the Track has since been listed on IndieWire’s 13 Best Sports Documentaries in 2014.

Inspiration for The Stand

As the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Olympics neared, Tom was drawn to the story of Tommie Smith and John Carlos and their silent protest on the medal stand. “After we finished the film on Roger Bannister, I started thinking of other pivotal moments in sports. The 50th anniversary of the Mexico City Games was approaching, so I brought the idea to my co-director, Becky Paige.”

“Becky had the skill, I had the idea, so we worked together,” Tom explained. “We started to connect one person to another person to another. After we completed the Roger Bannister film, it was much easier to find people who were willing to talk to us.”

Tom used his personal connections to assemble contributors for The Stand. “We were able to interview Tom Farrell because his brother, Peter, was my wife Kim’s college coach. We wanted to interview Harry Edwards, but we ended up interviewing Richard Lapchick, founder of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society and a professor at Northeastern.” Another friend was able to connect them with Harry Edwards; a different connection introduced them to Harvard rower Paul Hoffman, and yet another to Cleve Livingston.

Connecting the dots

Piecing together the story from a variety of sources was an arduous task. “Meeting the people you read about was the highlight of this project. You watch the interviews so many times that you feel like you really know them well, even though you’ve only spent a few hours with them.”

”Once we had a few interviews, we tried to look for a common thread,” Tom explained. “We transcribed hours of interviews, then grouped interesting pieces into a narrative thread. When you watch the interviews many times, you start to see what you want in your head, then you have to search for it,” Tom said. “When you find the right one, it’s very satisfying.”

“Becky would rough out the interviews, but when you rough it out, it looks really bad,” he chuckled. “So when you try to show it to someone to get feedback, they don’t really understand why it looks so bad, and they think the movie is just terrible.” Tom said that most people don’t speak very eloquently during interviews, and their speech can be riddled with um’s and ah’s. “In order to keep the film sharp, we would edit the clip to just the content we wanted, then piece it together with photos or other clips to smooth the flow.”

Tom said that costs can be a very limiting factor when producing small documentaries, and the producers had to make choices to keep expenses within budget. The Stand was funded through support from Puma, Inc., while Bannister funding came from a variety of sources. “Our objective was not to spend more than we were taking in, and hope that distribution deals would help recoup the money spent.”

“I would have loved to have gotten the U.S. CBS broadcast of the 200-meter race, but it would have run into thousands and thousands of dollars,” Tom explained. “Broadcast footage can cost $100-$300 per second so it would have made the project too expensive.” Documentary filmmakers can use some archival materials without charge for non-commercial purposes. Tom said he hoped the grainy quality of the film enhanced the archival feel of the footage, and noted that Becky even added extra grainy textures in some cases to make quality seem more consistent.

Local connections, familiar faces Tom said that his Carlisle connections were integral to completing the film. Specialty footage was filmed on the track at Emerson Field after the Adrian Martinez Classic. Tom said that filming was supposed to have taken place the night before the Classic, but a surprise weather front came through and forced the production company to break everything down until after the meet the next day. The podium was built by Carlisle’s Kevin Brown and Sandy Nash, and Tom used CCHS runners including his son, Christopher, as stunt doubles. Production and editing was done in town, and much of the research was done at Gleason Public Library.

Impact today Tom mentioned that Tommie Smith said something off-camera that was central to the story of The Stand. “He said, ‘All we wanted was the equal application of the ideals of America.’ Although they were castigated for their stand, they weren’t looking to destroy the country, but rather to share equally in its vision.” “In some ways so much has changed, in some ways nothing has changed in terms of how we’ve moved along,” Tom continued. “You hear the stories of what these guys went through, then you read about some people’s attitudes now, and it’s kind of shocking that there’s still a segment of the population that believe as people did back then.”

“You can disagree with Colin Kaepernick, but you can’t disagree that he has a right to do what he did. You don’t have to agree with the protest, but you can’t disagree with someone’s right to protest. One of my favorite lines from the film is, “What we all fight for is our right to speak our minds, and to suggest otherwise is contrary to the foundation of this country.”

Tom continued, “It’s great that more people now see these issues and feel like they want to step up and be a part of the solution, but the issues have been there all along. In some ways it shouldn’t be a revelation, but it is.”

The Stand also includes the story of the 1968 Harvard rowing team, an eight-man all-white collegiate crew who learned of the possible Olympic boycott and reached out to Harry Edwards to find out how they could help. Edwards credits the team during the film for “the fundamental role that they played in this movement.”

“Although the Harvard rowers feel that they have been given too much credit for their stand, back in ‘68 it was significant,” Tom said. “They did take risks in speaking out in support. I think this highlights the role of allies and the importance of speaking up and taking a stand for one’s beliefs.”

“On that note,” Tom continued, “I did a Q&A with a Brown University Africana Studies class and was asked what I had done to address injustice. After a long-ish pause, my answer was ‘not enough.’”

Moving Forward Tom has several new projects underway, including plans for a film about Lopez Lomong, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Lomong was abducted as a child and lived in a refugee camp for 10 years before he was resettled with a family in the US. Lomong became a high school and NCAA track champion, qualified for the Olympic team and was selected to carry the American flag in opening ceremonies at the 2008 Summer Olympics. Tom said he has had good conversations recently with some prominent filmmakers, but it is difficult to secure financing for a full-length feature film.

Tom is also workng on a documentary about Caster Semenya, the South African runner who won a gold medal in the 2016 Summer Olympics. Semenya has been ordered to take estrogen to compete in women’s races. With the Tokyo Olympics rescheduled from last year due to COVID, Semenya’s story will likely be timely and vivid.

While the US Olympic team has not been selected yet, Tom hopes several of his runners will also participate in Tokyo this summer. He also hopes to be there to cheer them on, but will have to wait to see how that plays out.

The Stand: How One Gesture Shook The World is available on Amazon Prime, Hulu, iTunes and other streaming platforms.

This article was published in The Carlisle Mosquito on 1/7/21.

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