On January 20th, 2009, while flying back from Las Vegas after having watched the Inauguration of President Barack Obama, I watched the film “Salute,” a documentary of the Australian, Peter Norman (1942-2006). Norma was the “other” man on the podium, a white man who split Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 200m final at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Smith and Carlos received their medals and raised their hands with the famous black gloves, the Black Power salute. What is less known is that Norman wore a badge on the podium (above his heart) to show his tacit support of their cause, the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). While both Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Games, Norman was “severely reprimanded,” explaining himself, “I believe that every man is born equal and should be treated that way.”
One of the most striking things I learned was that the Aussie athletics team had been given three rules for competing in those controversial and violence-plagued Olympic games:
- Repeat the form you had achieved to get to the Games. (not too much to ask).
- Never to finish last no matter the race.
- Never to finish behind a Pom (aka English).
Among the other anecdotes, for the black salute, Smith held up a gloved right hand (with, momentarily, a white track shoe in the other hand) and Carlos a gloved left hand because they had to share the only pair of black gloves they had on them (the other pair had been left in the lockers). The black athletes were shoeless on the podium, wearing black socks to represent black poverty.
As a track athlete, it is great to see the film because you see the classic elements of athletic endeavour. The psychology of the pre-race preparations. Carlos looking over his left shoulder that cost him the silver medal (reminiscent of the Roger Bannister 4 minute mile in which he overtook the Australian, John Landy, who was caught looking over his left shoulder in the final stretch).
Having seen the film, Salute, I have new found appreciation for the boldness of those two Americans and, clearly, a surprising new found respect for the evident implication of Peter Norman.
I had no idea that the man singing the Star Spangled Banner while the men were on the podium stopped singing 4 bars into it.
And here we are, forty years later after the Mexico City Olympics — basically as predicted by Robert Kennedy, saying that an African-American could be President of the USA in 30 to 40 years — which he said in 1961. (MLK said in a 1964 interview that it could happen within 25 years).
Although “…Peter Norman did not race a fist, he did lend a hand.” And, unbelievably, Norman’s time that day of 20.06 seconds flat still stands as Australia’s 200m record, and would have won the 200m at Sydney Games, 38 years later.
Not for the first time, Australians and Americans shared a common battle. I read these holidays “The Ghost Mountain Boys,” by James D. Hornfischer, a gripping [and true] tale about the war (WWII) in Papua New Guinea where Americans fought with Australians to keep their hold on that island. And a second fascinating story is “Ship of Ghosts,” by James Campbell, about the fate and survivors of the USS Houston and the Australian HMAS Perth, sunk in the early morning hours of Feb 27, 1942, and their 3+ years of imprisonment thereafter (some might say the real story behind the Bridge over the River Kwai). It is an odd coincidence that I read both these books over the holidays and that both shared the word ghost… not to be mixed up with Ghost Soldiers, the story by Hampton Sides, also about the allied POWs of the Japanese.
Peter means rock. Peter Norman was a silent rock in the protest and the courage that was encapsulated in those black fists.
Smith says in the film, “I would die for [Peter]”…an “interesting old guy.” That is a testament to the human race. Read Norman’s obituary in the Guardian. Wikipedia’s version of the Black Power Salute here.