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The Peter Norman, Tommie Smith and John Carlos story - hero athletes?

I read The Peter Norman Story by Andrew Webster and Matt Norman (published by Pan Macmillan, 2018) and found it both powerful and sad. Peter Norman (1942-2006) grew up in a close-knit, Salvation Army family living in Melbourne. Initially an apprentice butcher, Norman later became a teacher and then a trainer for an Australian rules football club in (during the athletic off-season).

He won Australia a silver medal at the 1968 Mexico Olympics after running the 200 metres in 20.06 seconds, an Australian record that hasn’t been broken in the 50 years since. He was part of one of the most successful Olympic Australian athletics team ever.

Peter Norman is a hero to millions today for what he did after that race. Hearing of US medallists Tommie Smith and John Carlos' plans to protest against inequality on the dais, Peter pinned an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on his green and gold Australian tracksuit. Although not an American, Norman promised to stand with the two American sprinters in silent protest. The trio’s courage in giving the Black Power Salute was a defining symbol that called attention to terrible racial inequality.

Time magazine said it was the most iconic photograph ever taken: 2 black sprinters raising a fist, both sheathed in black gloves, as the American national anthem played in Mexico City. They also hung their heads during the national anthem, which led their critics to accuse them of being unpatriotic.

The Peter Norman Story 
by Andrew Webster and Matt Norman

Peter Norman's singlet from the 1968 Olympics
Put into the Australian Museum of Australia in 2016

What promoted Norman’s sympathy with black equality? This young teacher was guided by his Salvation Army faith to take part in the Black Power salute because of his opposition to American racism. Equally he was upset by the immoral White Australia Policy.

As we saw in an earlier post, the apoplectic President of the American Olympic Committee Avery Brundage clearly reacted with anger to the two black athl­et­es. Brund­age and the IOC ordered the sus­pension of Carlos and Smith, and threatened publicly to strip them of their medals. After Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Olympics, their careers seemed shattered.

However later the two Americans were well-regarded by half the population for their protest, despite the rules of the IOC. After all, this was a time when the USA was literally burning as the civil rights movement gathered pace. Think of the timing – the USA had suffered the recent assassinations of Dr Martin Luther King in April 1968 and Senator Robert Kennedy in June 1968. Then many anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, although the Kent State shootings of young undergrads didn’t take place until 1970.

Nor­man received a verbal reprimand from AOC President Judy Patching then was allowed to remain in Mexico City. But after the Games, Norman was treated as a pariah in Australia. His failure to make the Australian team for the 1972 Olympics, despite his national records, suggested that he was indeed blacklisted. However just how much Norman was blacklisted or ostracised is still debated.

All 3 athletes were cast into exile to some extent. But the events sec­ured a unique friendship, and a powerful legend regarding their world-changing moment. This working-class man from Melbourne became a global icon for equal­ity and courage, alongside his colleagues. And for the Salvation Army girl, Ruth Newnham, whom he had married in 1964.

What were the consequences in the long term? Taking part in the silent protest after medalling at the 1968 Olymp­ics 200m changed Norman's life, and those of people close to him. What was true was that he came home and became a different per­son. Family life wasn’t their own any more. 

Peter Norman’s act of solidarity in Mexico cost him everything, including his family, career in sport, connection to his beloved church etc. But he thought he deserved greater recognition and was hurt by being forgotten by history. Fame is often so ironic.

Norman’s first family of children were interviewed for the book, making for very sad reading when they laid bare their anguish about him walking out on the family. Worse still, he took up a relat­ionship with another woman with whom he’d been having an affair. After his first divorce, Norman had refused to pay maint­enance payments and, for many years, he refused to see his own children. His private life was a disaster; he was a very flawed character.

Pall bearers Tommie Smith (left) and John Carlos for Peter Norman, 
Williamstown Town Hall, Melbourne 2006. 
The Bulletin

They reconnected with him later in life, but it was far too late. He died at 64, in 2006. Norman was survived by his first wife Ruth, and their children Gary, Sandra and Janita. And he was surv­ived by his second wife Jan and their daughters, Belinda and Emma.

In 2012, Federal MP Andrew Leigh put a motion to Parliament. It officially apologised for the treat­ment Peter Norman received after he returned to Australia and importantly acknow­ledged him as ‘a great Australian who stood with black power protesters.’

In the USA Smith and Carlos had become the legendary figures they deserved to be, even attending the White House with the American Olympic team after the 2016 Rio Olymic Games at the invitation of President Barack Obama.

A statue of the three sprinters
in Washington DC

Recently the Australian Olympic Committee posthumously awarded Nor­man the Order of Merit. And Athletics Australia and the Victorian Government announced it would be erecting a bronze statue outside a Melbourne stadium. Now, 50 years too late, he is finally being recognised as the hero he deserved to be!

The Sydney City Council recognised that street art can make a valuable contribution to the city's identity and social cohesion, to its creativity and diversity. The mural that sparked the creation of a Public Art Register was in Sydney's inner west, threatened with demolition to make way for a railway line. It was based on our photo taken at the 1968 Mexico Olymp­ics, and the protest against racial inequality!

See the 2008 film, Salute, shown on SBS.



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