1968 Olympian Lee Evans Has a Brain Tumor and No Health Insurance by Dave Zirin
Lee Evans needs our help. The Olympic Gold Medalist and political activist, who exploded all records in the 400 meters at the 1968 Olympics, has been hospitalized with an aggressive brain tumor. The prognosis for the 63-year-old Evans is not good. As his fellow 1968 Olympic activist John Carlos said in an e-mail, “All of our teammates want to go out and say some prayers. All there is left to do is pray.”
But the situation is made far worse by the fact that Lee Evans, after four decades teaching and coaching at schools ranging from the University of South Alabama to Nigeria, doesn’t have health insurance. This has meant, according to Lee’s sister, Rosemary, that he has been terribly mistreated during his hospitalization. Rosemary said to me, “I heard his doctor in the hall and I heard him say he wished [Lee] had been transferred somewhere else because he didn’t have insurance…. Lee is in intense pain. Not even morphine is helping. He hasn’t eaten in several days, yet there was no IV in his arm when I first went into his room. He’s lying in his filth and nothing is happening. If family members aren’t vigilant… If we aren’t vigilant, I don’t know what would happen.”
Thanks to this pressure and vigilance, the basic conditions of Lee Evans’s room has improved in the last twelve hours. But the fact that his care is even a question constitutes a national disgrace. Lee Evans, in addition to his 1968 Olympic gold medals in the 400 and 1,600-meter relays, is a central part of athletic and American history. A founding member of OPHR, the Olympic Project for Human Rights, Lee Evans helped turned the sports world on its head by attempting to organize a boycott by African-American athletes of the ’68 Olympics to protest racism and oppression both at home and abroad. They wanted South Africa and Rhodesia disinvited from the games. They wanted the Hitler-sympathizer Avery Brundage removed as head of the International Olympic Committee. They wanted Muhammad Ali’s title, stripped for his opposition to the war in Vietnam, restored. They wanted more African-American coaches hired. They pledged to boycott, protest and raise hell if their demands were not met.
This protest was punctuated with Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s famous raised-fist salute after finishing first and third in the 200 meters. As for Evans, he famously wore a black beret, in a nod to the Black Panthers, on the medal stand. Recently, Evans has been working to build a school on thirteen acres of land he purchased in Liberia. He has even been trying to sell his gold medals to raise money for this dream saying, “I don’t need the medals,” he said. “I need money to build the school.” Evans’s wife, Princess, is a Liberian refugee, and his dream was to build the school and name it after her.
Africa has always been dear to Lee Evans’s heart. I interviewed him several years ago and he said, “As soon as I learned about what Jim Crow meant and I found out that my ancestors were Africans, I wanted to go back to Africa. So that’s what I did. I went back to Africa in 1975 and I worked there for about twenty years and I was fortunate to coach three Olympic medal winners on Nigeria’s team. I’m going to go back to Africa again and continue my work over there.”
I spoke with Ron Davis, who was National Track and Field Coach in Nigeria with Lee Evans, coaching alongside him for close to nineteen years. This constitutes just part of a friendship that stretches back for more than four decades. Davis said, “We were black Americans before and after the Olympic Games. That meant we were victimized by class and racial oppression in America, except at the Olympic games where for that moment we were just ‘Americans.’ This hypocrisy is what Lee, Tommie, John and others were organizing against in 1968. And this is why Lee is suffering now. And I have to say that Lee Evans story is another example of the need for Universal Health Care for all Americans”
Ron Davis is absolutely correct. The idea that Lee Evans, Olympic record-setter, and a critical architect of the most important athletic social movement in history, is suffering to such a degree is an indictment of this country. Lee Evans warned us about the perils of social regression forty-three years ago. Now he’s living it to his last breath.