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Peter Norman, The Forgotten

It was 1968, the year usually associated to the French events in May…. A really eventful year, if we consider that, on March 16th, the My Lai massacre was perpetrated by the US military in Vietnam; on April 4th, Martin Luther King was assassinated and, on June 5th, Bob Kennedy too…. We should add the Soviet tanks in Prague and the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico, just before the Games of the XIX Olympiad in Mexico City.

The 1968 Summer Olympic Games

The Mexican Olympic Games in 1968 should be remembered for quite a few reasons.

For the first time, color TV was used for the closing ceremony and the sporting events themselves.

For the first time, doping tests were introduced and Swedish pentathlete Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall was the first olympian to be disqualified for alcohol use (he drank several beers just prior to competing!).

Also, for the first time, East and West Germany competed as separate teams in the Olympiads, after being forced by the International Olympic Committee to compete as a combined German team in 1956, 1960 and 1964.

Tommie Smith - John Carlos - Peter Norman
Peter Norman (AU) Tommie Smith (US) John Carlos (US)
Olympic Games in Mexico – 16-Oct-1968 (from Twitter)

But none of these first times left a mark in people’s memory….

This photo did.

It’s been taken on October 16th 1968 after the 200-meters race for men. It shows the podium for that race, won by Tommie Smith from the US; the silver medal went to Peter Norman from Coburg, a suburb of Melbourne, in Australia; another Afro-American, John Carlos, came third. David Cecil, sixth Marquess of Exeter, presented the medals….

What happened just before the photo

After the final, Carlos and Smith informed Norman that they would be protesting about the plight of Black Americans in the US. They told him they would wear bare socks to represent poverty and beads to allude to all those who had been lynched fighting for their rights. The rest is best told by journalist Martin Flanagan:

They asked Norman if he believed in human rights. He said he did. They asked him if he believed in God. Norman, who came from a Salvation Army background, said he believed strongly in God. We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat. He said, ‘I’ll stand with you’. Carlos said he expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes. He didn’t; ‘I saw love.’

On the way out to the medal ceremony, Norman noticed the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badge worn by Paul Hoffman, a white member of the US rowing team, and asked him if he could wear it. Norman also suggested that Smith and Carlos share the black gloves used in their salute, after Carlos left his pair in the Olympic Village: this is why Smith raised his right fist and Carlos his left.

What happened after the photo

The award ceremony turned into a scandal. In addition to being booed by the audience at the stadium (allegedly to Smith and Carlos and not to Peter Norman), the two Afro-American athletes were sent home in disgrace, banned from the Olympics for life. Just the black community welcomed them back as returning heroes, for sacrificing their personal glory for the cause. And, to a certain extent, history has been kind to them.

For Peter Norman, it would be different.

To fully comprehend the magnitude of Peter Norman’s actions, one would need to step back and consider the context of Australia in the middle of the Sixties. All Indigenous peoples in Australia could vote for the first time only in 1965. There was a referendum for all Indigenous peoples to be counted in the Census for the first time only in 1967. The country was still running a White Australia Policy and the forced removal of children, later in the so-called Stolen Generation. Australia was definitely not a crucible of tolerance….

While everybody focussed on Smith and Carlos for the raised fist salute, few noticed the badge worn by the silver medallist. But, after the medal ceremony, it was more closely analysed by the Australian authorities in Mexico: they concluded that Peter Norman was guilty of making a political statement at what was meant to be an apolitical event. Unlike Smith and Carlos, Norman was allowed to stay in Mexico but the Australian media made it clear that they were expecting him to be punished, as they believed that he had violated the non-political status of the Olympics. Viewed as a trouble-maker who had lent a hand to those desecrators of the Olympic flag, he was ostracised by the Australian establishment.

From a pure sporting perspective, despite qualifying thirteen 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. His time in Mexico City, 20″06, was his best performance and he put a new Australian record – but this went mostly ignored. This record still stands half a century later. Moreover, it would have been worth the silver medal in Munich (the gold medal went to Valeriy Borzov from USSR with 20″00) and the gold one in Sydney (the gold medal went to Kostantinos Kenteris from Greece with 20″09)!

The rest of Peter Norman’s life

During a training session, he seriously injured his Achilles tendon and nearly had to have a leg amputated because gangrene had set in. The injury ended any form of sport for Norman. Together with his divorce, this took the best of Martin Power over the next few years: depression, heavy drinking and painkillers addiction after a lengthy hospital stay. During that time, he was using his silver medal as a door-stop….

Both Smith and Carlos were welcomed to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as guests of the American athletics authority, which finally recognised the part played by both men in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Their iconic salute was voted the sixth most memorable non-war incident of the XX century. So, one of the things that kept Peter Norman up was the hope that he would be similarly welcomed and recognised at the Sydney Olympics. He was to be disappointed: Peter 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. Instead, as soon as the US delegation discovered that Norman wasn’t going to attend, the US Olympic Committee arranged to fly him to Sydney to be part of their delegation. He was invited to the birthday party of 200 and 400-meter runner Michael Johnson, who told Norman to his face “you are my hero”.

Later, on October 17th 2003, San Jose State University unveiled a statue commemorating the 1968 Olympic protest; Norman was not included as part of the statue itself – his empty podium spot intended for others viewing the statue to take a stand…. Norman was invited though to deliver a speech at the ceremony.

Some additional contradictory facts

For the sake of truth, I has to be said that the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) disputed all these views.

First, there was no punishment as such to Peter Norman: he was just cautioned by Chef de Mission Judy Patching the evening of the medal ceremony.

Secondly, Peter Norman was not selected for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich because he lost the trials; they provide an article from melburnian newspaper The Age as evidence. However, it was the AOC decision not to send any sprinter from Australia to Munich – for the first time in the Olympics: nor the ones who won some trial races, neither Peter Norman. This position seems weak because sending Peter Norman would have certainly given more opportunities than sending nobody….

Thirdly, according to Hilary Whiteman’s article on August 21st 2012, due to cost considerations, the AOC didn’t have the resources to bring all Australian Olympians to Sydney and Norman was offered the same chance to buy tickets as other Australian Olympians. However Peter Norman was no ordinary Olympian athlete and AOC miserably failed to see that….

It was even clearly stated that the AOC didn’t believe that Norman was owed an apology. This is further confirmed but the AOC itself, on their website, in a later post dated November 6th 2015.

Never too late?

TSmithJCarlos-PNormanCoffin-09-Oct-2006
Tommie Smith and John Carlos holding Peter Norman’s coffin
09-Oct-2006 (from web)

Peter Norman died of a heart attack on October 3rd 2006 and the US Track and Field Federation named October 9th 2006 (the day of his funeral) ‘Peter Norman Day’ – the first time, in the organisation’s history, that such an honour had been bestowed on a foreign athlete.

Two of the men who carried Norman’s coffin to his final resting place were Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

In 2008, Matt Norman, son of Peter, wrote and directed Salute, a documentary movie telling the details of the events, directly from the mouth of the protagonists – the ones still alive….

Maybe this catalysed the discussions, because, in August 2012, the Australian Parliament was scheduled to debate a motion on Peter Norman. And only on October 11th 2012 the Australian Parliament passed the following motion:

The order of the day having been read for the resumption of the debate on the motion of Dr Leigh — that this House:

(1) recognises the extraordinary athletic achievements of the late Peter Norman, who won the silver medal in the 200 metres sprint running event at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, in a time of 20.06 seconds, which still stands as the Australian record;

(2) acknowledges the bravery of Peter Norman in donning an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the podium, in solidarity with African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave the ‘black power’ salute;

(3) apologises to Peter Norman for the wrong done by Australia in failing to send him to the 1972 Munich Olympics, despite repeatedly qualifying; and

(4) belatedly recognises the powerful role that Peter Norman played in furthering racial equality—

Debate resumed by Dr Leigh who moved, by leave, as an amendment—Omit paragraph (3), substitute:

(5) apologises to Peter Norman for the treatment he received upon his return to Australia, and the failure to fully recognise his inspirational role before his untimely death in 2006; and Debate continued.

Too little, too late – if I am asked….

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