Remembering Wayne Collett

Last month marked the passing of a remarkably talented runner who once reached the pinnacle of athletic accomplishment, but was unfortunately remembered more for his role in a collision of athletics and politics on the global stage nearly four decades ago. He also had ties to the Monterey Peninsula, and those of us fortunate enough to experience Wayne Collett’s friendship and goodwill are feeling great sorrow in the loss of such an admirable man.

Wayne is best known – and most misunderstood – for his actions at the 1972 Munich Olympics, where he won the silver medal in the 400m dash. During the awards ceremony, Collett and fellow American (and gold medalist) Vince Matthews visibly disregarded our National Anthem by not standing at attention, and diverting their gaze from the flag while casually fidgeting and chatting.

This came four years after the more famous medal ceremony demonstration by African-Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City, and the International Olympic Committee had zero tolerance of further political statements intruding upon their Games. The IOC immediately banned Collett and Matthews from future competitions for acting disrespectfully, and that was pretty much the last the track world saw of Wayne Collett.

Wayne was frequently criticized for his actions, but he held strong to his principles in explaining his conduct. He felt strongly that the promise and potential of America were unattainable for many of its citizens due to widespread social and institutional injustices. He was often compelled to affirm his nationalism, once telling the Los Angeles Times, “I love America … to suggest otherwise is to not understand the struggles of blacks in America.” Wayne was never Anti-American; he simply wanted his country to be a better place, with equal opportunities for all.

Nowadays, the racism and exclusion that Wayne spoke out against are much more easily recognized; with historical hindsight, we can better appreciate the frustrations of his experience and the accuracy of his point of view. For those who knew Wayne personally, there was never – at any point in his life - any question about his patriotism or his passion for social justice. And although he couldn’t compete in track meets anymore, Wayne never stopped excelling in all aspects of life.

Once called the “greatest athlete I’ve ever coached” by UCLA track coach Jim Bush - no small statement considering the number of Olympians Bush trained during his 56-year career - Wayne was also one of that college’s most successful students, earning an undergraduate degree in 1971, an M.B.A. in 1973, and a law degree in 1977 all on the same campus. He worked against many of those injustices he demonstrated against in Munich, in hopes that today’s children enjoy the opportunities that many of his generation lacked. He gave his time and effort generously to many charitable organizations, with some of his fundraising efforts bringing him to our Monterey Peninsula, where he enjoyed a wide network of friends. Wayne also spent several years working for the United States Olympic Committee prior to the Los Angeles Olympics, and carried the torch in the 1984 relay through his hometown.

Wayne died last month at age 60 after a nearly four-year battle with cancer. While the most public moment of his life occurred at age 22, all who had the privilege of knowing him will remember his lifelong accomplishments, integrity, and commitment to social equality. For track fans as well as Wayne’s friends and family, we know we’ve lost one of the great ones.


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