G. Larry James, a middle-distance runner known as "The Mighty Burner" who employed his streaky speed to win gold and silver medals in track at the 1968 Summer Olympics, died of colon cancer at his home in Smithville, N.J., on Thursday, his 61st birthday.
His death was announced by the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, where he spent 28 years as athletic director.
James won his gold medal in Mexico City by teaming with Vince Matthews, Ron Freeman and Lee Evans in the U.S. 4-by-400-meter relay. He also won a silver medal in the 400-meter individual race.
James was a sophomore at Villanova University outside Philadelphia when he qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in 1968, a year when the nation was rocked by the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and riots in several U.S. cities.
Some of the African American athletes on the U.S. team proposed a boycott of the Mexico City Games as a way to make a statement protesting the treatment of blacks in America, but James wanted to race.
"For me, it came down to: Do you want to go there and be seen, or do you want to be an asterisk in the record book?" he said in an interview with the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., in 2007.
Lacking consensus, the athletes decided to compete.
But the issue came to a head after U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos won gold and bronze, respectively, in the 200-meter race.
At the medals ceremony, while "The Star-Spangled Banner" played, Smith and Carlos stood on the podium and raised their gloved fists in a Black Power salute.
The athletes were booed, and the International Olympic Committee insisted they be expelled for making a political statement during the Games.
Two days later came the 400-meter race. The U.S. runners swept the event, with James taking silver in 43.97 seconds, second to Evans' world-record time of 43.86. Freeman was third.
All three men recorded their best times ever, and James and Evans were the first to break the 44-second mark.
"When we had the press conference after the race, all anybody wanted to ask about was Tommie and John," James told the Star-Ledger. "I was thinking, 'Doesn't anyone want to talk about what we just did?' "
Next up was the 4-by-400-meter relay, held two days later. This time the U.S. runners set a world record in 2 minutes, 56.16 seconds, with James running the third leg.
The winning time was matched in 1988, but the record remained unbroken until 1992.
For their medals ceremony, the relay runners chose to wear black berets and black socks, but when the national anthem played, they removed their caps and stood at attention.
"Pictures of us . . . appeared in Black Panther newspapers," James recalled in a 1991 interview with Sports Illustrated. "And in the main media, we'd won for our country. We had something for everybody.
"We were agents of change, but . . . we were so unprepared," he said. "We were suddenly expert on everything, man, on toothpaste. You get caught up in it, the love affair the public has with athletes. You learn how it embraces you, and then you learn how it tires of you."
James returned to Villanova, graduating with a bachelor's degree in business in 1970. He served in the Marine Corps Reserve, attaining the rank of major, and later earned a master's degree in public policy from Rutgers University.
He was hired as track coach and assistant athletic director at Stockton College in 1972. He used to tell people he had planned to stay for three years, but they stretched into 36.
James became athletic director in 1980 and transformed the athletic program into a Division III power, the highlight coming when the men's soccer team won the Division III national championship in 2001. He also led efforts to build a $17-million multipurpose recreation center in 2000. He stepped down as athletic director Aug. 1.
James stayed involved in the Olympic movement over the years and held a variety of positions with USA Track and Field. In 2003 he was inducted into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame.
Born and raised in Greenburgh, N.Y., George Lawrence James was 15 when his mother, Martha, took him to Washington, D.C., in August 1963 for the March on Washington at which King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.
"I realized there was more to life than just me and my neighborhood," James told the Journal News of Westchester County, N.Y., in 2004. "There was a whole world of people that wanted to make a difference."
Survivors include his wife, Cynthia; son Larry B. James; daughter Tamaiya Forbey; five grandchildren; his mother; and a sister.
Noland is a Times staff writer.