“Peter didn’t have to take that button, 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.” – John Carlos
To the left is one of the most iconic photos of sport, if not history, in the 20th century. Two men, John Carlos and Tommie Smith made a powerful political statement against racial discrimination at the 1968 Olympics, and were vilified at the time for their actions and kicked out of the games for breaching its apolitical spirit and death threats followed. It took 30 years for them to be honoured for their part in furthering the civil rights movement in America. Pretty powerful stuff and heroic for human rights at the time.
But what of the third man on that platform? Seemingly standing awkwardly on the podium like a mum at a strip club was Peter Norman, one of Australia’s most successful ever track athletes and winner of the 200m silver medal at the Olympics; even to this day, he is Australia’s 200m record holder.
Yet he is less awkward in this scene than the picture implies. It was he who suggested that Carlos and Smith wear one glove each on the podium after Carlos realised he had left his in the Olympic village. He also wore a small badge identical to those on the other two athletes supporting the Olympic Project for Human Rights to show solidarity to Carlos and Smith. He was a man who opposed his own country’s ‘White Australia’ policy, which, though at the time being rescinded, was still discriminatory to Aboriginal Australians. He explained his actions through a simple but very effective statement after the ceremony: “I believe that every man is born equal and should be treated that way”.
But Australia was not happy. Their Olympic association dissociated themselves from him, ignoring him for selection to the next Olympics in Munich despite him easily achieving the qualifying time ahead of any other athlete (13 times, in fact) from his country and being ranked 5th in the world. The former apprentice butcher (sidenote, what an amazing career segue) carried on running but a case of gangrene from an Achilles tendon injury in 1985 almost cost him his leg and his active lifestyle came to an abrupt halt.
Even when significant time had passed and human rights movements had progressed significantly by the time Sydney hosted the 2000 Olympics, Norman was ostracised once again; he was the only living Australian Olympian to be excluded from a VIP lap of honour at the games, a huge snub considering that he was easily the most successful of their Olympic sprinters. The story does have a happy ending, though, as the US team were aware of this snub and made sure he was at the games, welcoming him as one of their own.
Norman died in 2006 after triple bypass heart surgery. In a touching tribute, both Smith and Carlos were pallbearers and gave eulogies at his funeral.
Thanks to Zena for the suggestion of Peter Norman. If you have an unsung hero you’d like me to write about, leave a comment.