The little known story of Peter Norman, an Australian Salvationist who ran the race of his life to win silver in the 1968 Olympics, but gave up his own glory to stand up for justice and for God.
It was 1968, the heart of the civil rights movement in the United States. The Olympics were being held in Mexico City. Brilliant black runners from the US team had just taken out two of the three medals in the 200 metre race. John Carlos was the Olympic gold medallist and Tommie Smiths had won bronze. They knew they had to make the most of the historic moment that had been given to them. John remembers his heart beating and mind racing as they approached the famed Olympic podium.
As they took the stand, barefooted to symbolise poverty and oppression, they each raised a black-gloved fist in the ‘salute’ of the American black power movement. Accounts tell of how a hush came over the entire stadium, and even the person singing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ faded into silence.
‘And then came the storm. First boos. Then insults and worse. People throwing things and screaming racist abuse. “N****rs need to go back to Africa!” and “I can’t believe this is how you n*****rs treat us after we let you run in our games”,’ writes Gary Younge, editor-at-large for The Guardian.
To the (white) majority, the actions of these men were unpatriotic and traitorous. At best, they were bringing politics into sport. At worst, they were ingrates who betrayed the nation.
Yet, decades later, John says he felt he was born for that moment. ‘I had a moral obligation to step up. Morality was a far greater force than the rules and regulations they had,’ he recalls.
Despite the enormous oppression and isolation the two black athletes faced after their act of protest, the potent image of them with fists raised has become one of the defining images of the American civil rights movement.
There is one man in the picture who has largely gone unnoticed. He is a white man who appears to be looking the other way, distancing himself from the protest. But take a closer look, and you’ll see that this man is wearing the same protest badge as his fellow medallists—it says ‘Olympics Project for Civil Rights’, a group that had recently formed to fight racial inequality.
His name was Peter Norman, an Australian athlete who had won a silver medal in that same 200 metre race. It should have been the moment of his life—he had just run his personal best and smashed the Australian record (which is still unbeaten today). But he decided to give the moment away.
Norman, who grew up in a Salvation Army family, was a passionate Christian.
‘The two Americans had asked Norman if he believed in human rights,’ writes Riccardo Gazzaniga, in an article that went viral this year. ‘Peter said he did. They asked him if he believed in God, and he, who had been in The Salvation Army, said he believed strongly in God. “We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat, and he said “I’ll stand with you”—remembers John—“I expected to see fear in Peter’s eyes, but instead we saw love.” ’
Norman asked for the civil rights badge to wear as a symbol of his solidarity, saying ‘I believe in what you believe.’ A white American Olympic rower, Paul Hoffman, gave Norman his own badge. The three discussed how the protest would be done—it was Peter who suggested they each wear a black glove—symbolic of the black power movement. An anxious buzz started to circulate within the Olympic athletic community as the three men walked up to the podium.
The repercussions began almost immediately. John and Tommy were expelled from the Olympic USA team and the Olympic village. Their teammate Paul was accused of conspiracy. The two medallists faced years of degradation and isolation, unable to get work and treated like traitors.
But back in Australia, Peter was also being ostracised by his community. For years, his only chance of being ‘pardoned’ from his part in the protest was to publicly condemn the actions of his co-medallists. A pardon would guarantee him a place back in the Australian Olympic fold.
Instead, Peter held fast and refused to condemn his fellow athletes and co-civil rights conspirators. As a result, he struggled to find work. In an interview for the documentary Salute, produced by his nephew Matt Norman, Peter recalls being overlooked for the following Munich Olympics in 1972. ‘I would have dearly loved to go to Munich, [but] I’d earned the frowning eyes of the powers that be in track and field,’ he said. ‘I’d qualified for the 200 metres 13 times and 100 metres five times [but] they’d rather leave me home than have me over there [in Munich].’
The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) denies Peter was punished for the stance he took—it says he was simply cautioned. And the AOC contends he was not selected in 1972 simply because he didn’t meet the criteria. Even as late as 2000, Peter was not part of the Aussie delegation at its own Sydney Olympics, claims the documentary. Again, the AOC dispute this.
Peter died suddenly of a heart attack in 2006. His remarkable Olympic achievements most notable for their absence from Australian consciousness—a country that is proud of their sporting heroes.
It was not until 2012 that the Australian Parliament issued a formal apology to Peter, reinstating him as an Australian hero—both for his sporting achievements, and for his bravery during the civil rights movement.
John and Tommie, who remained friends with Peter from that fateful moment in 1968, were pallbearers at his funeral.
‘Peter was a lone soldier. He consciously chose to be a sacrificial lamb in the name of human rights. There’s no one more than him that Australia should honour, recognise and appreciate,’ says John.
‘He paid the price with his choice,’ agrees Tommie. ‘It wasn’t just a simple gesture to help us, it was his fight. He was a white man, a white Australian man among two men of colour, standing up in the moment of victory, all in the name of the same thing.’
Peter rarely talked publically about his part in history, but his words in the documentary Salute, sum it up: ‘I couldn’t see why a black man couldn’t drink the same water from a water fountain, take the same bus or go to the same school as a white man,’ he says.
‘It has been said that sharing my silver medal with that incident on the victory dais detracted from my performance. On the contrary. I have to confess, I was rather proud to be part of it.’
Parts of this article sourced from ‘The White Man in That Photo’ by Riccardo Gazzaniga.
by Ingrid Barratt (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 6 August 2016, pp 10-11
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