Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Peter Norman and an iconic act of political resistance

"Even as late as August 2012, the AOC denied blacklisting Peter Norman. The time is right to tell the story of the former teacher who won a silver medal in one of the strongest sprint races ever run. 
Indeed his athletic achievements warrant greater recognition on this alone. But Norman was more than this; his words to Smith and Carlos “I will stand with you” represents one of the high points of Australian sporting history"
Steve Georgakis 
On Monday night this week, National Indigenous TV channel (NITV) showed Matt Norman's inspiring documentary Salute on his uncle Peter Norman who is the Australian sportsmen I admire the most.

Norman won the silver medal in the 200 metres at the 1968 Mexico Olympics behind American Tommie Smith and ahead of American John Carlos. In that race Peter Norman ran a 200 meter time that has never been bettered by an Australian. Peter Norman still holds the 200 meter record for the fastest Australian.

In the medal ceremony after the 200 metre final, Norman made a choice few sportsmen are willing to do. He choose to surrender his personal glory and fame to a greater good and to the fight against injustice. It was a decision that was to affect the rest of his life.

Tommie Smith and John 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.

At Peter Norman's funeral in 2006, John Carlos described how events unfolded on the way to victory dais that fateful day in Mexico:

Carlos and Smith asked Norman if he believed in human rights. He said he did. They asked him if he believed in God. Norman said he did. When they told Norman what they were going to do he said "I will stand with you". Carlos noted how Norman never flinched on the dais, never turning his eyes or head"
Norman, who was a teacher and guided by his Salvation Army faith was also motivated to take part in the Black Power salute because of his opposition to racism and the White Australia Policy.

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. 

On his return to Australia Norman faced horrendous criticism and was treated as a pariah, despite his remarkable performance. His desire to coach athletics at the highest level never came to fruition and he was the victim of a blacklist in Australia. He was forced to work as a physical education teacher to survive.

Despite being the 5 time national champion in the 200 metres, the Australian record holder for 200m and an Olympic silver medalist, Norman was not selected for the 1972 Munich Olympics, despite qualifying.

Despite the brilliance of his performance, Norman's name  still does not appear in discussion or books about finest Australian sporting performances or the greatest moments in Australian sport.

Norman, who died in 2006 aged 64, was a lifelong campaigner and fighter against injustice, and 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 the American Olympic Team.

In 2012 the Labor politician Andrew Leigh led an officially apology in Parliament to Peter Norman's family for his treatment in Australia.

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