Monday, October 09, 2006


Peter Norman died 5 days ago.

Who, I can hear you saying?

Peter Norman, the Australian 200 metre runner.

Who, I still hear you asking?

He ran the 200 metres in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City and won the Silver Medal. His time was 20.06 seconds, which amazingly, 38 years on, is still the Australian record for the event.

All very interesting, but I still hear you saying – So what? There must be many thousands of similar athletes in the same position.

The answer is in the picture below. It remains one of the most vivid Olympic images - a picture which once you’ve seen it, you will never forget. It was a simple, courageous, non-violent protest, a benign but impassioned and hugely effective dissent. They set out to bring further attention and focus to civil rights issues in America, to give pride to African-Americans, and didn’t they just succeed?

Peter Norman, Tommy Smith and John Carlos - 1968 Olympics

The picture shows the Americans Tommy Smith and Jon Carlos, each wearing a single black glove, with their fists clenched and raised in a Black Power salute – a picture which burned its way instantly into people’s consciousness all around the world. Oh, and back to the beginning, that’s Peter Norman standing alongside them, because he came second in the race and split them in the results.

Norman had taken a simple view when he had heard what the Americans were planning to do. In Norman’s words -

Norman said he saw the black gloves. Smith was prepared to don both until Norman said he suggested the pair share them.

"I actually thought John would wear the left one on his right hand," Norman said.

Norman said he asked the two if there was anything he could do to support them.

"I asked John if he had a spare badge for their human rights organization," Norman said. "John said he didn't, but on the way to the victory stand, John called over the fence to one of his friends who had a badge. He took the badge from him and gave it to me."

Norman slapped it on his warm-up jacket over his heart. The trio went to the medal stand. They were given their medallions. The U.S. national anthem began to play.

"There was a guy in the stands who was singing the U.S. anthem so loud it boomed right across the track," Norman said. "We got about four bars in, and he just tailed off."

Smith and Carlos were standing with heads bowed and fists punching the night like thunderbolts.

"Every emotion turned loose on them," Norman said. "There was vocal retaliation."

The Americans were told not long afterward to get out of town, which they did.

It was a strange conjunction of three individuals whose combined visual impact in the photograph was to have a truly remarkable impact on the Black Rights movement over the years. Carlos had previously been with Martin Luther-King 10 days before he was assassinated, so that will have had a massive effect on him, perhaps driving him to think that something needed to be done, and he would never, ever get a better opportunity.

None of the three was particularly close to the other two. After the event, all too predictably, all of them suffered varying degrees of adverse reaction from their sport’s governing bodies and their country’s media.
They all went their own ways over the succeeding years, although the Americans kept in sporadic e-mail contact with Norman. Two rather fascinating threads flow out of it after 35 years. Smith and Carlos were vilified and hounded in the USA when they returned – Carlos found jobs extremely hard to come by and Smith had the pleasure of clearing up his house after bricks were thrown, one suspects not by Black people, through the windows.

But, as so often happens, the perspective on the issue changed completely as time passed. In 2005, a statue commemorating the event was unveiled in San Jose, California, although Norman was not present. But then, in true American style, the statue only showed the two Americans, with Norman, who had added a significant international dimension to the 1968 event, being airbrushed, or is it air-chiselled, out of the piece of art.

Statue of Tommy Smith and John Carlos – San Jose 2005

I am sure that they had no idea at the time just how pivotal their action would turn out to be – it seemed to act as a real focus for the Black movement in the USA, and just seeing the picture today brings the emotions and feel of that moment in 1968 flooding back - apart from Hitler's 1936 Olympics, the first real time world sport was used to further political ends. The trouble from the administrators' viewpoint with this one was it was so, so effective.

The really warming conclusion to the story is that both Smith and Carlos are to fly half way around the world to Australia, and act as pall bearers at Peter Norman’s funeral – they at least know how important his part in this hugely potent little act of non-violent protest really was.

How very, very uplifting.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello, from the press around the world and especially in Australia it was Peter Norman's nephew Matt Norman who got Tommie Smith and John Carlos to Melbourne for Peter's funeral. I believe he is still trying to pay that off his own back. I suggest we look at him for recognition too. I also have seen that he spent the last few years documenting Peter's life in a film which comes out in cinema's in 2007 called "Salute - The Peter Norman story".

Well done Matt for getting Tommie, John and Peter back together for Peter's last race. You obviously love your uncle very much.

It looks like Matt was the one that made another moment in history happen?