Olympic Gold and a fight for rights: U.S. champion Ron Freeman
Posted on May 13, 2012
Ron Freeman is an Olympic Gold Medallist, an Olympic Bronze Medallist, a civil rights champion, an advocate for education and for the empowerment of women. He earned a degree in Political Science and a Masters in Student Personnel. His participation in one of the most memorable moments of an Olympics Games – in a black beret and arm raised – secured his place in civil rights history. Yet the sum of all of these accolades and achievements do not do Ron justice.
Ron left the USA in 2006 to reside in Conakry, the Republic of Guinea, where Ron leads the International Medalist Association, an organisation that is the culmination of a vision Ron shared with his 400m track team members, Lee Evans and Larry James. Ron started the International Medalist Association to focus on inner-city initiatives in Baltimore and has transformed it into an International Organisation benefiting youth in the USA and Africa.
It is in Guinea where I had the good fortune to meet Ron and learn a bit about his life and his passion. Ron kindly agreed to be interviewed for UNYARN.
During your life you have been an advocate for change, famously at the 1968 Olympics and also through your work in Guinea. What change have you witnessed as a result of your, and other people’s, efforts?
President Obama being elected at the first Black President of the United States and development of After School Educational programs in schools around the United State.
I was fortunate to start the first After School Program in the City of Elizabeth, N.J in the late 70’s that is still active. These programs has given a body of students the opportunity to gain much needed educational support around the United States and we hope to initiate a similar program in Guinea.
The election of America’s first President of African decent came after year’s of struggles though the Civil Rights period which we saw many great leaders make the ultimate commitment along with men, women and children of ALL colors and races.
After more than fifty years of being under Military Rule the people of Guinea brought Guinea into the 21st Century In becoming a Democratic Country by hosting peaceful Democratic Elections.
I am both happy and proud to have had to opportunity to see these great events happen in my lifetime.
At the 1968 Olympics, you and other athletes took a stand for equality. Describe the lead up to the Olympics and the feeling of change, not only within the Olympic team but also more generally.
The Civil Rights period was a time when we as athletes had to do our part in bringing attention to the uneven justice that was brought upon Americans of African decent for many area’s of our lives. Education, health, housing, employment were a few of the areas of concern.
There were several meetings amongst the Olympic Athletes prior to the team selection and after teams were selected. There was an organization set up in San Jose California named Olympic Project for Human Rights and that group suggested the idea of such as Olympic Boycott and Protest on Victory Stand.
It was voted on at a meeting in Mexico City that we would use the Victory Stand to make a statement and some wore black socks and berets, others wore their pants legs up and others wore black gloves with raised fist.
All of the statements were to say that Human Rights needed to be addressed in the United States.
Then your team, amongst other athletes competing at the Games, took a stand for equality for African Americans. Describe your podium experience and the reaction of the International Olympic Committee, the US Olympic Committee and team, and people back home in the US.
My victory stand experience was bitter sweet. Bitter because a few days before my two friends John and Tommy were asked to leave the Olympic Village and sent back to the U.S because of a choice that they made in support of Human Rights.
Also, that the day before our open race, Lee, Larry and I were scolded and Warned TO BE CAREFULL WHAT WE SAY OR DO ON THE VICTORY STAND, BECAUSE WE WOULD LOSE OUR RIGHT TO RUN AGAIN AND THAT WOULD ALSO IMPACT ON OUR UNIVERSITY SCHOLARSHIPS.
Can you imagine having that type of pressure put on you before the biggest race of your life? The President of the International Olympic Committee A.B told us that and he wasn’t joking. No one from the USOC mentioned anything to me, but I must say that my parents that were at the event did make a strong request to me at the time. I did receive hundreds of western Union telegrams from residents of my hometown in support of my making the team and wishing me the best.
You blitzed the relay leg with the fastest ever leg of the 4x 400m relay; a record you held for 25 years. What is your most vivid memory from the event?
Being ranked number one in the world leading up to the Games, our goal was to smash the world record and set it at 2:55.00. We calculated the time that we were going to run, with the world record being 3:00.
We even made up a song and started singing it:” 2:55 and that aint no jive”.
While we used a sprint relay pass for the 4×400 meter relay, to date that has NEVER been done since 1968. (4×100 meter relay exchanges the stick up and all other relays exchanges the stick over and down) The degree of difficulty is greater when using the sprint on the 4×400 relay because you MUST come in at a faster speed.
I remember being ten meters behind a Kenyan runner when I received the baton, which was a long distance behind in this relay and particularly at the Olympic games. I realized if we were going to smash the world record that I would have to begin my kick with three hundred meters to make up for lost ground and that’s what I did, running the faster relay leg ever, in the history of the Olympic Games, 43.2.
You now run the International Medalist Association; a standout organisation. How did IMA come into being? And tell me a little about what IMA does.
I started I.M.A in 1998. It was the vision of Larry James, Lee Evans and I to develop an organization that could impact on youth around the world. In 1999, with the support of Dan & Sandy Krivit, Nokware Adesegun and Eunice Carol Miles and an active Board of Directors, the International Medalist Association became that International Organization.
The International Medalist Association is focused on Education as we specialize in After School Educational Services, which supports primary & secondary schools in Maryland, USA. We raise funds to help schools in poor area’s of the U.S and developing Countries give services to their students that other wise may not be possible i.e.: University Tours, Tutors from University Students from John’s Hopkins University & Morgan State University in Baltimore Maryland, USA.
In many cases (60%) our students are raised by their Grandparents and are poor. For more than ten years we have been feeding 100 students per day a hot meal for dinner along with other supportive services in the United States. We also host a FREE six-week summer camp in Math, Science and sports for our students.
Since 1999 we have also been helping developing countries enhance their sports programs by training entry-level coaches in Athletics & Basketball, with the support of Olympians from the United States.
In Guinea and other developing countries, our mission is the same regarding supporting education, but we also focus on Empowering Girls, promoting Leadership & Democracy, implementing RECREATIONAL activities because there is little RECREATIONAL activities for the youth.
One activity that we are promoting not only in Guinea but also through West Africa is the game of Double Dutch or Jump rope. This creates fitness for girls, teamwork and gives girls something that they can do anytime, anywhere. We are raising funds to buy jump ropes and sneakers for girls and our goal is to put a single rope in every girl’s hand. Most recently employees of Guinea Alumina Corporation donated hundreds of ropes and sneakers to girls of Conakry, Guinea, which was amazing.
We are also raising funds for Books so that students can have the opportunity to read. While we work directly with 17 schools, so far we have given $5000.00 worth of new books and jump ropes to 13 of our schools this year and we hope to have a greater impact and offer service to more schools as the funding develops.
Why did you choose Guinea?
After many years of doing work in Guinea on behalf of the United States Department of State and having the opportunity to Develop the largest Multi Country Youth Peace Initiative in Guinea (Sierra Leone, Liberia & Cote D Ivoire) for UNDP and during that time I had the opportunity to grow closer to residents of Guinea and learned so much about the loving culture.
I saw the potential of Guinea some years ago as the people are loving, caring and sharing people, who have made a sacrifice by excepting more than 700,000 refugees from surrounding countries without any mishap.
As an American of African decent I found a personal connection, feeling and caring, as my decedents could have been Guinean. The first African that I met at 21 years old was a Guinean at the 68 Olympic games and he was the Head Coach of the football team and now he is the President of the National Olympic Committee and we are great friends today.
Lastly, Guinea is a beautiful country and one of the most peaceful countries I have ever been to in my life and I love Guinea.
As someone who inspires others, who is the person who most inspires you?
Many people have come into my life at various times to inspire me. God, family, coaches, teachers, and co-workers are just a few.
Thank you Ron. Congratulations on your incredible success & I wish you all the best for many more successes, and of course, health and happiness.
A bit more about Ron:
Ron’s concern about youth combatants, child slavery and the lack of educational initiatives in Africa has led him to become heavily involved with various partners who share his mission-to eradicate these detrimental areas in this African region. The United Nations, U.S Department of State, U.S Department of Education, U.S Department of Labor,UNDP, UNESCO,USOC, UNICEF and World Health Organization (WHO) are key partners who have supported IMA throughout the years. Ron, through his work in the IMA, has been instrumental in bringing doctors to African countries to provide free eye exams, operations and eye glasses for people of all ages. In addition, Ron has supported bringing Africans to the USA for internships at universities.
Ron recently received the Distinguished Alumni Award from his alma mater, Kean University, and was inducted into several Halls of Fame, and in 2007, became the first American to receive the Jappo HUMANITARIUM AWARD in Dakar, Senegal, for his work in Africa through IMA.