The other man on the podium
When Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave a gloved Black Power
Peter Norman wore a badge supporting the protest
salute on the Olympic podium in October 1968 it sent a shockwave
through sport. But what happened to the other man on the platform?
Forty years ago, two black Americans, Tommie Smith and John
Carlos, won gold and bronze medals in the 200m final at the Mexico
Olympics, and used their time on the victory podium to protest with a
Black Power salute.
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.
Their actions caused havoc at the Games, ensuring the pair were
ejected from the US Olympic team. But three men won medals in that
race, and the consequences for the third athlete on the podium would be
every bit as significant.
The silver medallist was a laid-back Australian, an
up-and-coming runner called Peter Norman who, in the words of his
coach, "blossomed like a cactus" when he got to Mexico. While observers
expected the Americans to make a clean sweep of the 200m medals, Norman
kept them interested by breaking the world record in the heats.
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BLACK POWER SALUTE
Raised fist traditionally used as salute by left-wingers and radicals
Origins of gesture's adoption unknown
Fist symbols adopted by Black Panthers in the 1960s
An apprentice butcher from Melbourne, he had learned to run in a
pair of borrowed spikes. More significantly, he had grown up in a
Salvation Army family, with a set of simple but strong values instilled
from an early age.
As his nephew Matt Norman, director of the new film, Salute,
remembers: "The whole Norman family were brought up in the Salvos, so
we knew we had to look after our fellow man, but that was about it."
In Mexico, that was enough for Norman, who felt compelled to
join forces with his fellow athletes in their stand against racial
Norman was one of Australia's foremost athletes but was ostracised
The three were waiting for the victory ceremony when Norman
discovered what was about to happen. It was Norman who, when John
Carlos found he'd forgotten his black gloves, suggested the two runners
shared Smith's pair, wearing one each on the podium.
And when, to the crowd's astonishment, they flung their fists
in the air, the Australian joined the protest in his own way, wearing a
badge from the Olympic Project for Human Rights that they had given
The repercussions for Norman were immediate. Seen as a
trouble-maker who had lent a hand to those desecrators of the Olympic
flag, he was ostracised 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.Sydney hope
Divorce and ill health all weighed down on him over the next few
years. He suffered depression, drank heavily and grew addicted to
painkillers after a lengthy hospital stay. During that time, he used
his silver medal as a door-stop.
One of the things that kept him going was the hope that he
would be welcomed and recognised at the Sydney Olympics. As his nephew
puts it: "Then his life would have come full circle."
The US monument to the protest has an empty space
He was to be disappointed. In 2000, Peter Norman found himself 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.
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."
In 2004, Peter's nephew Matt started work on Salute, a
documentary that, for the first time, brought all three athletes
together in a room to tell their story of that day in Mexico.
Two years later, Peter had just seen the film for the first
time and was about to embark on a publicity tour to the US when he had
a heart attack and died. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, to whom he had
always stayed close, travelled to Melbourne to act as pallbearers at
his funeral, and remember their friend.Empty place
"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.
"He was that committed, and I didn't know that," adds Smith.
In 2004, a 23ft statue honouring Smith and Carlos was erected in
San Jose State University. This huge replica shows each of them with
their fists in the air, just as they stood four decades ago in Mexico.
Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman's funeral
The place for the silver medallist is empty. It is where students
and tourists stand to have their picture taken, when they want to take
their place in sporting history.
In the film now being shown all over Australia, the absent athlete reflects on his legacy.
"I'm a firm believer that in a victory ceremony for the
Olympics, there's three guys that stand up there, each one's been given
about a square metre of God's earth to stand on, and what any one of
the three choose to do with his little square metre at that stage is
entirely up to him.
"If it hadn't been for that demonstration on that day, it would
have just been another silver medal that Australia picked up along the
line. No one would ever have heard of Peter Norman."The film Salute is now on release in Australia, and being shown at various film festivals around the world.Send us your comments using the form below.
I have seen the monument at SJSU, and while there is no
representation of Mr Norman on the silver medal platform, it is not
inappropriate. I remember being told of his alliance to the US athletes
when I was young and when you stand in his place at the monument, you
get a sense that he represented the best role model for the "everyman."
In some ways, his alliance in that moment is an example we should all
copy. Tina, Arkansas, US
As an Australian it makes me sad that I've never heard about
Peter until today. He is an example of someone who has true empathy for
others - I wish we'd had a chance to applaud him during his life Cat, London
I must say this piece really touched me, it shows how the real
outlook to humanity was. That singular act by Peter Norman did not just
bring him to public notice, but actually showed we had good men back
then who really didn't mind about difference in race, and empathised
with others in what they passed through. I never knew this part of
history. I think the statue that depicts the two Americans should be
modified to include Peter Norman somehow.Kelechi Kehinde Uguru, Lagos, Nigeria
There seems something slightly inappropriate about the monument
omitting Norman - it is a statue celebrating standing up for equality,
but scrubbing the man who is thought not quite as equal as the others.William, Cambridge, UK
One hopes the film Salute will lead to the recognition Peter
Norman deserves and to the righting of this wrong, albeit posthumously.
The Olympics are supposed to be apolitical but the Chinese games were a
political showpiece - though not to rival Berlin's in 1936 when Jesse
Owens showed up Hitler's claims of Aryan superiority. To punish Peter
Norman is a stain on the Olympic Movement. Perhaps Boris Johnson should
sanction a ceremony to commemorate Peter Norman at the 2012 games.
Australia House is in Trafalgar Square and there is a vacant plinth. A
sculpture with all three athletes could be put there for the duration
of the games.John Greenwood, Loughborough
Wow - that's brought a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat. A
true hero for our times, making a small, simple yet mighty protest. He
should not be forgotten.Simon Cope, High Wycombe, UK
From a country that has such a diverse cultural and ethnic community, the Australian Olympic Committee should be truly ashamed.Ian Marshall, Manchester
People should be careful how they conduct themselves when
representing their country. Something that a lot of international
sportsmen and women all too easily forget. The moment you accept the
invitation to wear that jersey, and represent your nation, you must
accept that your personal views are no longer your primary objective. I
have great respect for men and women who stand up for their beliefs,
but I wonder how much more Mr Norman could have achieved if he had
become a spokesperson for the subject and used his fame from the
Olympics as a springboard, rather than ending his career (albeit
unfairly) under a shadow.John Turnbull, Derby, England, UK
I'm a black American and have been to Australia at least a dozen
times. Australia is trying very hard to wipe out its racist history
which is similar to the US. Peter was good man who suffered because
Australia did not want to offend America. Rest in peace, Peter.Ormond J Gilbert, Goose Creek, SC, US
I was chuffed to read this and see how a Christian upbringing sensitised this brave Aussie to support the other two.Tony F, Worthing, England