Three proud athletes in Mexico

November 21, 2008

A race to remember: The Peter Norman story

By Damian Johnstone and Matt Norman

JoJo Publishing, 2008

320 pages, $34.95 (pb)

Peter Norman could run 200 metres in 20 seconds — only a rare individual can do that, but Norman was much more than just a rare individual who could run very fast.

Norman was also the Australian athlete who stood in second place on the medal-winners' podium at the 1968 Mexico Olympics proudly wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in support of the raised-fist protest against racial discrimination by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the two African-American runners who came first and third in the 200 metres.

In A race to remember: The Peter Norman story by Damian Johnstone and Matt Norman, we find a principled believer in human equality who was prepared, in the face of possible official reprisals, to act on his beliefs.

Of unpretentious working-class stock, Norman was born in Melbourne in 1942, becoming a habitual school truant, then a butcher, and a lover of rock 'n' roll, football, basketball, athletics, the odd drink and cigarette, and his family's religious alliegence — the Salvation Army.

As well as drums in the local Salvos band, and a tracksuit emblazoned with "God is Love", the Salvos also gave Norman his strong belief in human equality — "colour doesn't matter. Nationality doesn't matter", he said of his abhorrence of the racist immigration White Australia Policy and Australia's treatment of Aboriginal people.

Selected for the 200 metres in the Australian 1968 Olympic team, Norman took both his running prowess and his anti-racist values to the Mexico Olympics. Racial discrimination was pervasive in sport and society at the time, and its victims included Martin Luther King, who had been assassinated just six months before.

Black US athletes had formed the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) to campaign for racial equality during the games, much to the alarm of International Olympics Committee (IOC) President, Avery Brundage.

"There is no discrimination whatsoever," he soothed and if any of "the boys" demonstrate "they'll be promptly sent home", added the man whom Black athletes considered to be a racist.

After the race and before the medal ceremony for the 200 metres, Norman offered to wear an OPHR badge in support of Smith and Carlos as they planned their protest. Norman borrowed his badge from Paul Hoffman, the cox of the all-white US rowing eight.

The rowing team all supported the black athletes — "this was a very special time" for human rights in the world, said Cleve Livingstone, one of the rowers.

As "The Star-Spangled Banner" was playing during the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and each raised a gloved, clenched fist.

The booing and jeering that erupted when the US national anthem stopped was worse, noted Norman, from the white-American segment of the crowd. They did not want to be reminded of Black poverty and discrimination in jobs and education (as symbolised by Smith and Carlos going shoeless on the dais), nor Black power and unity (symbolised in the clenched fist).

They preferred to forget the Blacks who had died in a society prepared to kill to defend white privilege, symbolised by Smith and Carlos' bowed heads in memory of their slain brothers and sisters. Norman, however, agreed with the protest's symbolism.

The reaction from Olympic officialdom was swift. Brundage's IOC threatened to send home the entire US team unless the US Olympic Committee (USOC) banished Smith and Carlos. The USOC duly complied and suspended the two Black athletes. Neither would run for the US again.

Norman was spared this fate, although the Australian Olympic Federation boss tried to patronisingly write off Norman's action by saying that Norman "had not realised quite what he was doing".

All three athletes became firm friends as a result of the protest. Carlos had treated Norman ("the white boy") with animosity in the beginning but was won over by Norman's supportive action, which had taken courage because he knew it would be controversial and he could have anticipated reprisals.

"Peter became my brother at that moment", said Carlos. The US Black athletic community took Norman to their hearts and he was the only non-African American invited to compete in the 1969 inaugural Martin Luther King International Freedom Games in the US.

Norman would often reminisce about the Mexico Olympics protest in his later years, especially when life soured for him.

After working as a physical education teacher in the 1970s (when he was also a teachers' union activist), Norman was a shock omission from the Australian team for the 1972 Olympics in Munich (speculating that he may not have been seen as the "right person to take away on games any more") and he began to drift away from the Salvos and into alcohol and divorce, before spiralling into depression as a result of injuries.

Having hit "rock bottom", however, Norman's sense of personal worth returned, greatly helped by the newly discovered respect and honour in which he was held by a new generation of Black US athletes, including Michael Johnson (in 1996 the first male athlete to win both the 200 and 400 metres at the same Olympics) and Edwin Moses (who called Norman "one of my greatest heroes").

John Steffeson, the 400 metres winner at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006 and who was born in Perth to South African parents, is also a Black athlete who admires Norman. He sports a T-shirt featuring a photo of the podium protest.

Just a year before his death from heart failure in 2006, Norman reflected on the four-decades-old legacy of the three medal winners' protest in 1968. "It was like a pebble being thrown into the middle of a small pond and the ripples ... are still travelling", only the pond has become "a very big pond. It's the entire world."

Their protest wasn't just about civil rights in the USA in 1968, Norman said, adding that "this is very much to do with Australia and other parts of the world. Human rights have still got a long way to go."

Rising above the minutiae of sprint times and domestic life (which tend to, perhaps necessarily, pepper the book) is a man, Peter Norman, to admire.

He was a kind, friendly, exuberant athlete with a deep sense of humanity who was, as Carlos put it, "proud to represent the human race" when two African-Americans and one white Australian seized their moment on the world stage and did more for human equality in their brief protest than all the hot air about the Olympic spirit has ever managed.

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