Friday, October 23, 2009

Mexico Olympics 1968: Peter Norman and an iconic act of political defiance

On Friday night I watched for the third time Matt Norman's inspiring documentary Salute on his uncle Peter Norman who is the Australian sportsmen I admire most.

Norman won a silver medal in the 200 metres at the Mexico Olympics behind American Tommie Smith and ahead of American John Carlos. In that race he ran a time that has never been bettered by an Australian.

Smith and Carlos's act of defiance during the medal ceremony- black gloves, closed fist, black power salute and black socks- was designed to express their solidarity with the American civil rights and black power movements and intended as a statement against racism and injustice. For me it is an iconic moment in sporting and political history.

As Matt Norman's documentary shows Peter Norman was an active co-creator and participant in this act of political defiance. It was Norman who suggested the Americans each wear one glove (hence the reason why one salutes with the left fist and the other with the right). Norman was proud and committed in standing alongside the two Americans. His was an act of solidarity in recognition of a greater cause. Norman actively supported the American's action and on his chest he wore the same the same large button as the Smith and Carlos. It was emblazoned with the letters O-P-H-R- Olympic Project for Human Rights.

The backlash against all three was not long coming. Smith and Carlos were withdrawn from other races and sent home. On returning to the USA they were ostracized and had trouble finding employment. All three athletes suffered for their stand for human rights and against racism and injustice. Smith and Carlos were never again chosen to represent their country and were hounded out of athletics. Norman was not selected for the 1972 Munich Olympics despite qualifying.

Norman, who died in 2006 aged 64, continues to be denied a place in Australian sporting history because of his act of defiance. He was not invited to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, but went as a guest of Americans.

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