Far too few people know the story of Peter Norman, the other guy, the white guy, the Australian on the medals stand at the 1968 Olympics with sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos...and that is a shame.
Norman was on the stand to receive a Silver Medal for his performance and stood in abject support of Smith and Carlos and they raised clenched fist salutes during the playing of the American national anthem. Norman, wore a button of the “Olympic Project for Human Rights”—a civil rights protest movement set up by black athlete Harry Edwards before the Games—in support of his two fellow athletes.
Norman told reporters at Mexico: “I believe in civil rights. Every man is born equal and should be treated that way.”
Dave Zirn wrote:
Only those who see the film footage notice that he never throws a furtive glance back at fellow medal winners as they raise their fists. He never registers surprise or alarm. At a moment that epitomized the electric shock of rebellion, his gaze is cool, implacable, his back ramrod straight, a fellow soldier proud to stand with his brothers.
Only those who go beyond official history will learn about the true motivations of all three of these men.
They wanted the apartheid countries of South Africa and Rhodesia to be disallowed from the Olympics. They wanted more coaches of African descent. They wanted the world to know that their success did not mean racism was now a relic of history. The silver medalist with the white skin stood with Smith and Carlos on every question and it was agreed before the race, that if the three, as expected, were the ones on the dais, they would stand together: three young anti-racists standing together in struggle.
In an article following his death in 2006, the Guardian wrote:
Like Smith and Carlos, Norman suffered for the support he showed and his opposition to racism and white supremacy. Zirn writes:
The backlash endured by Smith and Carlos is well documented. Less known are Norman's own travails. He was a pariah in the Australian Olympic world, despite being a five-time national champion in the 200 metres. He desired to coach the highest levels, yet worked as a physical education teacher, the victim of a Down Under blacklist. As Carlos said, "At least me and Tommie had each other when we came home. When Peter went home, he had to deal with a nation by himself. He never wavered, never denied that he was up there with us for a purpose and he never said 'I'm sorry' for his involvement. That's indicative of who the man was."
The following piece written by my friend Bill Berkowitz is taken from Smirking Chimp.
When U.S. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, went to collect their medals at the podium, they were shoeless, wore black socks to represent black poverty, and ultimately, during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, bowed their heads and each raised a black-gloved fist in a black power salute to protest racial inequality at home.
The third man on the podium was silver medalist Peter Norman, an apprentice butcher from Melbourne, Australia, who proudly wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge during the medal ceremony.
As the BBC’s Caroline Frost pointed out in 2008, “The photograph of the two men with their heads bowed, each of them with an arm raised in the air and a fist clothed in a black leather glove, is one of the most striking images of the 20th Century.”
Smith and Carlos were booed by the crowd, chastised by many in the U.S. press, and, at the instigation of International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage, expelled from the Games and sent home by the U.S. Olympic Committee. Brundage, who had no problems with the 1936 Olympic Games being held in Nazi Germany, termed the incident "the nasty demonstration against the American flag by negroes."
Back home, long before they were honored in recent years, Smith and Carlos received death threats and suffered greatly.
“It was Norman who,” the BBC’s Frost reported, “when John Carlos found he'd forgotten his black gloves, suggested the two runners shared Smith's pair, wearing one each on the podium.”
For wearing the OPHR badge, Norman was ostracized by the Australian Olympic Committee and was punished for decades.
Last week, Norman, who died in 2008, finally received an official apology from the Australian government.
Years after the Olympics, Norman said: “I couldn’t see why a black man wasn’t allowed to drink out of the same water fountain, or sit in the same bus or go to the same schools as a white guy.”
Norman "always stood behind his competitor's stance," Bruce Jenkins recently reported in the San Francisco Chronicle. "Norman's conviction earned him a ban from running in ... Australia, then bound to racial exclusion laws, and he was harassed and tormented for years."
The BBC’s Frost pointed out that Norman suffered immediate “repercussions”: “Seen as a trouble-maker who had lent a hand to those desecrators of the Olympic flag, he was ostracized by the Australian establishment. Despite qualifying 13 times over and being ranked fifth in the world, he was not sent to the following Munich games, where Australia had no sprinter for the first time in the Olympics. Norman retired soon afterwards without winning another title.”
According to the Associated Press, last week, “federal lawmakers in Canberra [Australia] praised the ‘heroism and humility’ of [Norman] … for standing in solidarity with … Smith and … Carlos on the podium following the 200-meter race at Mexico City. Norman was later chastised at home for his stand, and reports suggested that he was shunned from future Olympic selection.”
The House of Parliament "issued an official apology -- ridiculously late, and particularly in Norman case" since he died in 2006,” the Chronicle’s Jenkins pointed out.
Carlos told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio Tuesday that the disrespect, "I think, mortally wounded him."
"I don't think he was as bitter as he was hurt ... and I don't think he ever recovered," Carlos said.
“It was thought Norman was punished for his involvement by being banned by Olympic officials for the 1972 Munich Games,” AP reported. “However, a spokesman for the Australian Olympic Committee said Norman wasn't nominated for the Munich Games ‘due to lack of form,’ which Norman had apparently acknowledged at the time. Norman later quit athletics in protest over his treatment.”
Both Carlos and Smith were pallbearers at Norman's funeral. "Peter didn't have to take that button [badge], Peter wasn't from the United States, Peter was not a black man, Peter didn't have to feel what I felt, but he was a man," says Carlos.
Carlos “said there was no one in Australia who should be ‘honored, recognized, appreciated’ more. He cited his humanitarian concerns, character, strength, and his willingness to be ‘a sacrificial lamb for justice.’"
Lawmaker Andrew Leigh “told federal parliament … that Norman was punished for standing in solidarity on the podium with Smith and Carlos.
‘It was a moment of heroism and humility that advanced international awareness for racial inequality,’ Leigh said in presenting his motion for an apology,” AP reported.
“Another parliamentarian, John Alexander, said Norman was ostracized by the Australian media and athletics officials. ‘The simple gesture to wear this badge on the dais as Smith and Carlos raised their fist in protest condemned Norman to never represent Australia again,’ he said.”
In 2008, the Sydney Film Festival featured a documentary titled “Salute,” a film about the protest, written, directed and produced by Matt Norman, an Australian actor and filmmaker, and Peter Norman's nephew.
In a 2011 speech at Canada’s University of Guelph, Akaash Maharaj, a member of the Canadian Olympic Committee and head of Canada's Olympic Equestrian team, said, "In that moment, Tommie Smith, Peter Norman, and John Carlos became the living embodiments of Olympic idealism. Ever since, they have been inspirations to generations of athletes like myself, who can only aspire to their example of putting principle before personal interest. It was their misfortune to be far greater human beings than the leaders of the IOC of the day."
At the 2000 Olympic Games in Australia, Norman was “the only Australian Olympian to be excluded from making a VIP lap of honour at the Games, despite his status as one of the best sprinters in the home country's history,” the BBC’s Frost noted. “But the US athletics team were not going to ignore this omission. They invited Norman to stay at their own lodgings during the games, and welcomed him as one of their own. In an extraordinary turn of events, it was hurdling legend Ed Moses who greeted him at the door, and that year's 200m champion Michael Johnson who hugged him, saying: ‘You are my hero.’"
AP pointed out that when Norman, the five-time Australian 200 meter champion, finished second in 1968, he set an Australian record “that still stands.”