It's as if the PUMA Suede has been with us for all time. The iconic formstrip set to a background of beautifully brushed suede has been flashing across our screens and consciousnesses generation after generation. From its inception, the Suede has been behind the scenes of so many important cultural turning points, social movements, and game-changing moments it's hard to keep count. The Suede's timelessness is certainly down to its minimal aesthetic, but it also owes a lot to the pioneers that chose to wear the sneaker and represent themselves as key voices of their generation.
To chart some of the most iconic Suede moments in history, we are catching up with several of PUMA's most legendary cultural figures in our Podcast series 'Represent Yourself', which kicks off with 1968 Olympic Gold medal winner, one of sports first activists, and the inspiration behind PUMA's #REFORM program, Tommie Smith.
Today’s superstar athletes see no shortage of signage these days - between long-term endorsement deals, signature sneakers, modelling gigs, and scouting reports that follow young prodigies from their teenage days, it’s hard to imagine a time when these talented humans weren’t seen as celebrities.
Tommie Smith arrived at the 1968 Olympic Games already a record-setting runner, but eyes were on him for different reasons as social unrest and talks of boycotts by Black athletes questioned if he would even compete. For the first installment of our new podcast with PUMA, 'Represent Yourself', the conversation takes us back to the 1968 Games in Mexico City. Smith unpacks the emotion and meaning behind his symbolic stand, raising his fist in protest with PUMA in hand while receiving his Gold medal and the impact that can still be seen through the protests of athletes like Colin Kaepernick today.
"You have to have an open mind to move forward. And I was on the victory stand to move forward, not to excite riots, not to indicate that I was unhappy, because I was very happy. Black lives have been lost in building this country, in the military, in political strata, in athletics, in most parts you know about this country, Black folks were involved, even from the beginning. I can talk about it now because that was in my heart even then, but I didn't have time to talk. It was a silent gesture heard around the world.”
The resounding global impact from the scene at the first live Olympic Games to ever be broadcast was felt immediately, before Smith and his teammate on the podium, John Carlos had even returned home.
“To me, it was the defining race because it closed a chapter of my life. Not closing the book of my life, closing that chapter of my life, starting another one right after I stepped off the victory stand, which was the professional part of Tommie Smith. There were no professional athletes back then in track and field. You got paid nothing. You ran as hard as you could, you got your handshake and you came home and that was it. But we came home and were treated much differently than we were treated on the track. I left San Jose with my life being threatened. I came back with my life being threatened; only it was more real when I came back because of what had happened during that stay in Mexico City. The world saw. And in fact, especially my community saw. And the ratification of Tommie Smith and John Carlos being sent home, we did not beat it. I suppose the news beat us because there was no one to help us out once we got back. The airport was empty, with no friends, no help. We had our wives with us, nothing happened. And when we got home, still nothing happened. Then things started happening. People started making phone calls or writing letters or writing notes.”
Unwelcomed yet undeterred, Smith returned to San Jose, continuing his education after a professional football run with a Master’s degree and Ph.D. and sharing his experiences with young communities and initiatives with PUMA, paving a path for emerging stars to do the same with their own platforms.
"People, young athletes, need to be able to speak freely and not be hidden behind a door, otherwise we're going to take your money away. People are afraid that their money is going to be taken away, like Colin Kaepernick, you might say. But how can you live knowing that you could have done better? It's called sacrifice. And if enough athletes would understand that, and people, in general, would understand that I think the tenacity to overcome that need to know yourself so other people can enjoy what you do, I think it's a necessity.”
You can listen to the full conversation with Tommie Smith whilst scrolling through our 1968 inspired PUMA Suede lookbook above. Be sure to keep an eye out for the rest of the series on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app.