Lee Evans anchors the USA 4x400m team to victory at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (© Getty Images)
World Athletics is deeply saddened to hear that 1968 Olympic 400m champion Lee Evans – a leading human rights activist and world record-breaker – died on Wednesday (19) at the age of 74.
On the track, the US athlete’s career was capped by his 43.86 run – the first ever sub-44-second 400m performance – to win Olympic gold in Mexico City, but he will also be remembered as a leading member of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, fighting for racial equality.
At the 1968 Games, where his teammates Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists on the 200m podium, Evans and his compatriots Larry Smith and Ron Freeman all wore black berets to show solidarity with Smith and Carlos and other civil rights organisations.
The world record which Evans set in that Olympic 400m final would stand for almost 20 years, as he was pushed most of the way by James, who finished second in 43.97.
“Three steps from the finish, Larry dropped his head. I knew I had him then,” Evans later recalled. “Larry ran 395 metres, I ran 401 metres.”
Evans, James and Freeman then combined with Vince Matthews to form the USA’s world record-breaking 4x400m team, with the quartet clocking 2:56.16 for a mark which would not be broken until 1988.
Born on 25 February 1947, in Madera, California, Evans ran for Overfelt High School and then San Jose State, claiming the first of his five US 400m titles in 1966.
Two years later he won the NCAA 400m title and improved his PB to 44.06 at the Olympic trials at Echo Summit, a time which was faster than runner-up James’ later ratified world record but one which remained unofficial due to the ‘brush spikes’ shoes he was wearing.
There was no debate over his 43.86 run at the Olympics, however, and that stood as the world record until Butch Reynolds ran 43.29 in August 1988.
Evans' career also included 1967 Pan American Games wins in the 400m and 4x400m and he finished fourth in the 1972 Olympic trials 400m final to earn a 4x400m team place.
He went on to become a member of the US Olympic Hall of Fame, while his coaching career saw him direct national track and field programmes and take on numerous coaching and advisory positions, including joining the coaching staff of the University of Washington in 2002.