Because of its meaning and significance, it is one of the most powerful images in the history of sport. The photograph of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium of the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City, both staring at the ground and gloved fists pointing to the sky, as the chords of the United States anthem play, has become an icon of the 20th century.
The two American athletes had just won gold and bronze in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics and decided to stage a gesture before the whole world, but their audacity had consequences. The immediate price for protesting racial discrimination and vindicating the civil rights of ethnic minorities was having to leave the Olympic Village immediately. The long-term price was worse: marginalization and rejection.
The story of Smith and Carlos is told many times, but in the famous photograph there is a third protagonist who usually goes unnoticed, it is the Australian Peter Norman, who had achieved the silver medal, sandwiched between Smith and Carlos at the finish line. . Norman’s attitude in the photo on the podium seems to be the usual one, far from the protest gesture shown by his two rivals in the final. However, sometimes appearances can be deceiving. The Australian was not limited to being a simple guest of stone on the podium of the black power, and his life and his career would also be marked by that event.
October 1968: the world is changing
A change is gonna come, Sam Cooke sang in 1964 as a denunciation against racism and testimony of what was brewing in the United States. The song was quickly adopted by the Civil Rights Movement in America and became the soundtrack to a troubled age. On April 4, 1968, just six months before the Olympic Games were held in Mexico, Martin Luther King, the great promoter of the movement, had been shot dead. In the fall of 1968, the country was in full swing due to the growing clamor for social freedoms. A change was coming, but it was desperately slow.
African-American athletes in the United States, national heroes in the stadium but second-rate citizens on leaving the track, were no strangers to the general state of turmoil. During the months leading up to the Games, the group seriously considered not attending the event to make their discontent and tiredness clear, but the boycott was finally ruled out. A common protest was also rejected and it was resolved that each athlete had the freedom to do it in their own way.
Three men on the podium
Once in Mexico, two days before Bob Beamon made his stratospheric leap into the future, his teammates Tommie Smith and John Carlos were vying for victory in the 200-meter dash. The two American riders were the dominators of the distance and the big favorites for the final. However, on the same finish line, a semi-unknown Australian sprinter overtook Carlos and slipped onto the second step of the podium. Against all odds, Peter Norman got silver, also beating his country’s national record, still in force today.
After the race, it was time for the story. The protest was forged just before the medal ceremony, in the room where the three athletes awaited the ceremony. Peter Norman did not remain on the sidelines of the conversation of the two American athletes, but offered his support and expressed his intention to join the event. Smith and Carlos both wore badges from the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), an organization created by African-American athletes to speak out against racism in sports, and Norman asked them if they had another for him. Finally, Paul Hoffman, a member of the American rowing team and also a member of the OPHR, gave him his badge and with it Norman climbed to the podium to receive his medal.
You might think that the vindication of two black Americans was far from a white Australian athlete. However, Norman was also very aware of the racism that was exercised against Aboriginal people in his own country and his sense of justice led him to join the protest. Norman’s participation also served to universalize the gesture. It was no longer just a particular demand of the American black community, but involved anyone who believed in the fight for equality. Tommie Smith summed up the Australian athlete’s behavior: “Although he did not raise his fist, he did raise his voice.” “I expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes, but instead I saw love,” John Carlos later recalled.
Repudiation, forgetfulness and restitution
Smith and Carlos were removed from the American team and immediately expelled from the Olympic Village. Upon returning to the United States, came the disgrace and marginalization, both sports and social. They suffered death threats, their friendships faded, and finding a job became an ordeal.
Peter Norman’s gesture also earned him the rejection of Australian society at the time. Despite comfortably achieving the minimum mark to participate in the following Olympic Games, Munich 72, the Australian team decided to leave it out. No sporting reason could justify such a decision. He did not compete again after that disappointment and remained ignored in his country for the rest of his life. It was the great absentee in the acts celebrated on the occasion of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. The authorities of the organizing country did not remember the best sprinter in its history.
Norman died in 2006, the victim of a heart attack, without being recognized in his country for his contribution to the battle against racism. At his funeral, while the chords of the soundtrack of Chariots of Fire sounded, Tommie Smith and John Carlos carried to the grave the coffin of which he was once a rival, later an accomplice and finally a friend.
Finally, in 2012, the Australian parliament passed a motion to apologize and restore the image of the forgotten athlete: “We apologize to Peter Norman for the damage caused by Australia by not sending him to the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972, despite having repeatedly achieved ranking, and we belatedly recognize the powerful role Peter Norman played in promoting racial equality. ” In 2019, the city of Melbourne raised a statue in honor of the athlete who one October afternoon, in Mexico City, decided to add his two cents to the fight for equality and human rights. A belated recognition, but absolutely necessary.