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Monday, 11 September 2017 06:34

Three on the Podium: Remembering Peter Norman and the '68 Olympics Black Power Salute

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Fist68 0911wrp opt(Photo: Melbourne Street Art Avantgarde / Flickr)The NFL national anthem protests – which have now included white players supporting their African American teammates -- are variations on a theme that hearken back to one of the most iconic images in the history of sports; the picture of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising black-gloved fists on the victory stand at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. The third man on the victory stand, Australia's Peter Norman is too often cropped out of the picture.

Many people know that Smith and Carlos, after finishing first and third respectively in the 200-meter dash, paid a tremendous price for having the courage to protest racial inequality in the U.S. while on the victory stand during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner. Far fewer know that Peter Norman, the Australian runner who won the Silver medal, also paid a heavy price.

Smith and Carlos were sent home by the U.S. Olympic Committee, criticized by a hostile press, received death threats, and was reviled by a good portion of the nation. For years, they had a hard time making a living. Norman, who finished second in the race, also suffered recrimination and punishment back home in Australia for proudly wearing a small badge that read Olympic Project for Human Rights – an organization opposed to racism in sport -- during the medal ceremony.

Norman, who evidently suggested that Smith and Carlos share one pair of black gloves when Carlos couldn't find his pair, was ostracized by the Australian Olympic Committee and punished for decades. Norman was finally given an official apology from the Australian government in 2012; unfortunately it came six years after his death in 2006.

The political climate in the U.S. and Mexico during the run-up to the Olympics was roiling. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy had been assassinated; protests against racial injustice erupted across the country; anti-Vietnam War protests were taking hold. In Mexico, just prior to the Olympics, government forces had mowed down hundreds of young people protesting conditions in their country.

As CNN's James Montague reported in April 2012, "Australia too, was in the midst of racial strife. The country's 'White Australia' policy had provoked protests of its own. It put heavy restrictions on non-white immigration -- and a raft of prejudicial laws against its indigenous aboriginal population, including a policy of taking Aboriginal children from their birth parents and handing them to white couples for adoption, a practice that continued until the 1970s."

Norman, who never ran in the Olympics again, had finished second in 1968 with a time of 20.06 seconds, which remains the Australian 200 meters record. "I'd qualified for the 200 meters 13 times and 100 meters five times (but) they'd rather leave me home than have me over there (in Munich)," Norman later said.

The Associated Press reported at the time that, "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."

Norman "always stood behind his competitor's stance," the San Francisco Chronicle's Bruce Jenkins pointed out. "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."

"As soon as he got home he was hated," Norman's nephew Matthew Norman, who directed the film, Salute!, which profiled Peter Norman's life before and after the 1968 Olympics.

Matthew Norman pointed out that "A lot of people in America didn't realize that Peter had a much bigger role to play. He was fifth (fastest) in the world, and his run is still a Commonwealth record today. And yet he didn't go to Munich (1972 Olympics) because he played up. He would have won a gold. He suffered to the day he died."

Thirty-two years later, when Australia hosted the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Norman wasn't invited to participate.

His home country may have taken a long time to recognize his heroism, but Smith and Carlos never forgot their medal stand comrade.

"At the funeral both Smith and Carlos gave the eulogy, where they announced that the U.S. Track and Field association had declared the day of his death to be "Peter Norman Day" -- the first time in the organization's history that such an honor had been bestowed on a foreign athlete," CNN's Montague reported.

Smith and Carlos "helped carry his coffin before it was lowered into the ground. For them, Norman was a hero – 'A lone soldier,' according to Carlos -- for his small but determined stand against racism.

"'He paid the price," Smith told CNN. "This was Peter Norman's stand for human rights, not Peter Norman helping Tommie Smith and John Carlos out," Smith added.

"He just happened to be a white guy, an Australian white guy, between two black guys in the victory stand believing in the same thing," said Smith.

Ever since their chance meeting on that podium in Mexico City, the three had remained friends until his death.

In late August, at johncarlos68.com, Carlos published an "Open Letter To Michael Bennett & Those That Stand United With Him." In part, the letter stated:

I … want to acknowledge all of our brothers who although they cannot relate to the struggles and discrimination we African Americans continue to experience throughout America, they support, understand and stand with us as we continue to protest. My dear brother Peter Norman, God rest his soul, didn't have to silently protest with myself and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics. However, he believed in the message and stance we were protesting for.

… Through individuals like Peter Norman, Chris Long, Justin Britt and the many other white athletes who have stood by their black teammates in support of what they are protesting, this is the 'UNITY' we need to see happen more in our society today. Not just within our sports but throughout the world.

Images like Chris Long touching Malcolm Jenkins, and Justin Britt embracing yourself, need to circulate throughout the internet instead of images of police brutality, riots and hate.

As Carlos pointed out, in recent weeks, there have been several white players expressing solidarity with their protesting black teammates: While Philadelphia Eagles' teammate Malcolm Jenkins raised his fist during the national anthem, Chris Long, his white teammate, stood next to him with his arm draped on Jenkins' shoulder; Justin Britt, the son of a U.S. Army veteran, and the Seattle Seahawks' center, put his hand on the shoulder of teammate Michael Bennett, an African-American son of a military veteran, as Bennett sat during the national anthem in protest of racial oppression.

During these times of racial strife it's worth remembering the courage not only displayed by Smith and Carlos, but also the courage it took for their white brother, Peter Norman, to silently protest along with them. It is also worth taking Carlos' words to heart: We all have the ability to reach across racial lines and do the right thing.