Sunday, January 23, 2011

peter norman deserved better

(An old post re-visited)

I've never been a great fan of the Olympic Games, but I take an interest in the fortunes of Australians who compete. And so I can remember the silver medal won by Peter Norman in the 200m sprint in the 1968 games. And of course I can remember the "scandal" of him standing on the dias with two black American athletes giving what was said to be a black power salute. But I didn't know the rest of the story until two years ago.

Photo from Wikipedia

Norman died four years ago, and the two black athletes in the picture, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, flew to Australia to be pall bearers. Why? The story has now become public with the release in 2008 of the award-winning film "Salute", made by Norman's nephew Matt Norman.

Before the games, Norman was not expected to earn a medal, but he qualified for the final in world record time, and followed this up with a run half a second faster than his previous best to win silver. Norman was about 5m behind race leader and world record holder John Carlos coming into the straight, but stormed home to pip Carlos into second place behind Smith.

Amazingly, it is still, thirty years later, the fastest 200m time by an Australian, and would have been fast enough to win gold at many subsequent Olympics. So Norman proved to be a wonderful athlete.

But Norman proved to be more than that. The two US runners told Norman before the presentation that they were going to protest against racism in the US, and Norman offered to support them by wearing a badge for the "Olympic Project for Human Rights". Then when Carlos realised he had forgotten his black gloves, it was Norman who suggested they wear one each (thus explaining what had always puzzled me, why the two Americans raised different hands!).

Smith and Carlos were sent home, and Norman, who also expressed public criticism of the then "White Australia Policy", was disciplined. But worse followed, when Norman, still 5th fastest in the world four years later, was not even picked in the Australian team for the 1972 Olympics, and he dropped out of athletics and public view. The Australian Olympics Committee has often been accused of being hidebound and out-of-touch, and this appears to be another example.

When the 2000 Olympics were held in Sydney, Norman was the only surviving Aussie Olympian not to be invited to participate in a lap of honour. But Norman was something of a hero to black US athletes, who did not expect a white man from another country to support them, and champions such as Ed Moses and Michael Johnson welcomed Norman to their quarters.

Photo taken from Youtube.

Smith and Carlos had remained in contact with Norman over the years and appeared in the movie. And so it was that they were keen to attend his funeral and act as pall-bearers, as a last opportunity to express their respect for Norman.

Norman's stand, and the price he ultimately paid for it, were not a surprise to those who knew him. He was a committed christian with a Salvation Army background, and had a strong belief in equality and human rights.

Norman was a fine sportsman, a good bloke, he supported the underdog, clashed with the authorities and stuck to his beliefs. This should qualify him as a genuine Aussie "hero".

Read media reports about Norman in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age (which includes a photo of Smith and Carlos carrying Norman's coffin) and BBC News, and a review of the film.

The film "Salute" is on ABC2 in Sydney this week, on Australia Day (appropriately) Wednesday 26th at 9:30 pm.

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