James D. Irwin tells the story of Australian Peter Norman who supported John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s protest against racism, even though he knew it would mean the end of his Olympic Career.
A better world could be brought about only by better individuals.
–Pierre de Coubertin,
founder of the modern Olympics,
first president of the IOC,
and the creator of the official Olympic motto
faster, higher, stronger.
Peter Norman was repeatedly and consistently within the qualifying times for the Munich Olympics. However he was not chosen for the games—in fact, not a single Australian athlete competed in the 100m—and the silver medal Peter had won four years earlier would be his last. He would never appear at the Olympics again.
The reason he never again made the Australian Olympic team was because he answered a question four years earlier with four short words. He knew that his answer would almost certainly mean the end of his Olympic career, but he said them anyway. Peter Norman knew that not all heroes wore gold medals, and some things were more important. This was one of them.
Detroit-born Avery Brundage is the only American to have been president of the International Olympic Committee. His presidency lasted for twenty years, between 1952 and 1972. He retired after the games in Munich, which he had decided not to cancel in the wake of the Black September terrorist attacks that had seen eleven Israeli athletes killed.
This followed a precedent set four years earlier, when the 1968 Mexico Olympics went ahead after forty-four students and protesters were murdered in Tlatelolco ten days before the start of the Games. Tlatelolco is in Mexico City, and the protesters had been murdered by their own government.
On October 15, 1968 Norman set the world and Olympic record in heat six of the 200m in the Estadio Olimpico Universitario with a time of 20:17 seconds.
He failed to match that time in the quarter-finals, but again won his heat. In the semi-finals Peter finished second to the American sprinter John Carlos. He was in the Olympic final, and with a good chance of taking the gold. Only John Carlos and another American, Tommie Smith, had managed to better 20:17 and the margins were narrow and ever-shifting.
In the finals, Peter Norman crossed the finish line with a time of 20:06. He had outpaced Carlos, who had defeated him in the semis, but Tommie Smith had taken the gold with a new World and Olympic record time of 19.83. 19:83 would have taken the gold at five subsequent Olympic games, earned a silver behind Usain Bolt at Beijing 2008, and still be quick enough to take bronze at London 2012. Smith’s time stayed the Olympic Record until Los Angeles, 1984, when fellow American Carl Lewis managed to run three hundredths of a second faster.
Of course Tommie Smith, on his return home, was not given the hero’s welcome he deserved.
The 1936 Olympic Games were awarded to Berlin in 1931, two years before Adolf Hitler became Chancellor. By 1936 he was the Fuhrer, and the Berlin Olympics were seen as the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the virtues of the Aryan race and the Third Reich.
Carl Diem and Joseph Goebbels saw the chance to tie Aryan Germany to the Ancient Greeks via the Olympic Flame. Introduced at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, the flame was a popular addition the Games and was continued for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. It was Diem’s idea to have a torch lit in Olympia, site of the ancient games, and brought in by foot relay to light the Olympic flame in Berlin. This plan was approved and ratified by the IOC.
This symbolic link between the founders of modern civilization and Nazi Germany was, on Hitler’s request, filmed by Leni Riefenstahl. The result was Olympia, an award-winning film that proved a great, great propaganda victory for the Nationalist Socialist German Worker’s Party.
Although undermined by the success of the African-American athlete Jesse Owens, the degree to which Nazi pomp was allowed to dominate the Games was spectacular. The IOC does not condone overt political statements, and yet spectators and athletes alike would frequently and openly give the Nazi salute. The Head of the US Olympic Committee raised no objections.
On October 16, 1968, three men stood on the medal podium inside the Estadio Olimpico Universitario. The two Americans wore black socks, but no shoes. Tommie Smith wore a black scarf, whilst John Carlos unzipped his jacket to reveal a beaded necklace.
Both men were wearing a single black glove. They had both meant to be wearing a pair each, but John Carlos had left his in the Olympic village. It was Peter Norman who suggested they share and wear a glove each, differing slightly from the Black Power salute — many years later Tommie Smith would state that the gesture was a human rights statement rather than a Black Power protest.
Peter Norman borrowed a badge, a badge supporting the Olympic Project for Human Rights. As “The Star-Spangled Banner” played Peter Norman did nothing, and by doing so was actively doing something. He did not flinch, turn away, or distance himself as Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised their gloved hands.
Boos rang out around the stadium as the three medallists, then the three fastest 200m runners in Olympic history, left the Olympic arena.
Many considered Smith and Carlos to have disgraced the US athletics team. Time magazine ran a picture of the Olympic rings with a corruption of de Coubertin’s official motto: Angrier, Nastier, Uglier. On their return to the States both men received death threats. Many were openly hostile to them both, and they struggled to find work.
IOC President Avery Brundage, who had in 1936 been Head of the US Olympic Committee, felt there was no place for political statements within the Olympic Games and immediately expelled both Americans from the Olympic village. No action was taken against Peter Norman, despite his explicit support of the protest.
However, the Australian Olympic Committee did punish him. He was ostracized by the media, and while not banned from Australian athletics, he never again made the Olympic team, despite qualifying for the 100m in Munich five times, and making the qualifying time for the 200m on thirteen occasions.
An IOC spokesperson said of the salute that it was ‘a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.’
Shortly before the London games of 1908 de Coubertin attended a sermon in the United States. From this arose a second unofficial motto, which de Coubertin felt more accurately reflected the spirit of the Olympics— ‘the important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in Life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well. To spread these principles is to build up a strong and more valiant and, above all, more scrupulous and more generous humanity.’
Shortly after the final of the 200m at the 1968 Olympic in Mexico the gold and bronze medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos approached the young Australian who would be sharing the podium with them. The twenty-six year old from Coburg, Victoria who had briefly held the Olympic and World record had taken silver. They needed to ask him a few questions, but did not expect the simple response he gave.
Tommie was to wear a black scarf, to represent black pride. John was to unzip his tracksuit in solidarity with blue collar workers, and wear a beaded necklace that was for those who had been killed, lynched, or thrown overboard. They would both take to the podium without shoes, with black socks to symbolize black poverty. Both were going to wear black gloves.
The two men asked Peter Norman if he believed in human rights. Peter did. They asked Peter Norman if he believed in God. Peter did. They told him what they were going to do.
For the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000 there was a parade of every Australian who had won an Olympic medal. All but one — Peter Norman –was invited to attend.
Peter passed away on October 9, 2006, after suffering a heart attack. His funeral service concluded with the theme music from Chariots of Fire and his coffin was carried out of the church. Amongst the pallbearers were two black American men, both in their mid-sixties. One was Tommie Smith, and the other was John Carlos.
Carlos remembered telling Peter what he and Tommie intended to do on the podium. ‘I expected to see fear… but I didn’t, I saw love. Not every young white individual would have the gumption, the nerve, the backbone, to stand there.’
Tommie Smith called him ‘a man who believed right could never be wrong… Peter will always be my friend. The spirit shall prevail.’
Before the London Olympics of this year Carlos stated, ‘There’s no one in the nation of Australia that should be honoured, recognised, appreciated more than Peter Norman for his humanitarian concerns, his character, his strength and his willingness to be a sacrificial lamb for justice.’
There is not a single monument to Peter Norman anywhere in the world.
On October 16th 1968 in the Estadio Olimpico Universitario Tommie Smith and John Carlos asked Peter Norman two questions, and informed him that they intended to give the Black Power salute on the podium in protest.
Peter Norman replied with just these four words.
He knew those words would destroy any hope of ever competing in the Olympics again… he knew he would become hated in his own country… and he knew he would be setting an example to the entire world. Peter knew not all heroes wore gold medals. Some things were more important. This was one of them…
‘I’ll stand with you.’
About the author: James D. Irwin is a British writer based in the Hampshire countryside. He is The Weeklings’ Minister of Propaganda.
Photo: AP/Michael Probst