Peter Norman, Australian Ostracised Olympic Hero

In the 1968 Mexico Olympics a famous image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos who had won gold and bronze in the 200m giving the black power salute on the medal podium was taken.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos give the black power salute at the 1968 Mexico olympics

It has become an iconic image of that time, but little is known these days of the role of the silver medalist in that photo. Peter Norman was a new star in running and broke the world record in the heats, but he was also brought up in a Salvation Army family and to think about looking after his fellow humans. This excellent BBC news article about both the 40th anniversary of the event and the 2008 film “Salute” says, his choice on that day had lasting effects:

The three were waiting for the victory ceremony when Norman discovered what was about to happen. It was Norman who, when John Carlos found he’d forgotten his black gloves, suggested the two runners shared Smith’s pair, wearing one each on the podium. And when, to the crowd’s astonishment, they flung their fists in the air, the Australian joined the protest in his own way, wearing a badge from the Olympic Project for Human Rights that they had given him.

The American’s were kicked out of their olympic team immediately, but the repercussions for Peter Norman were more subtle. As the article says:

Seen as a trouble-maker who had lent a hand to those desecrators of the Olympic flag, he was ostracised by the Australian establishment. Despite qualifying 13 times over and being ranked fifth in the world, he was not sent to the following Munich games, where Australia had no sprinter for the first time in the Olympics. Norman retired soon afterwards without winning another title.

This continued right through to the 2000 Sydney Olympics where Peter Norman was the only Australian Olympian excluded from the VIP lap of honour, 36 years after his original action. Whilst the Australians may have ignored him others decided that this was too much.

But the US athletics team were not going to ignore this omission. They invited Norman to stay at their own lodgings during the games, and welcomed him as one of their own. In an extraordinary turn of events, it was hurdling legend Ed Moses who greeted him at the door, and that year’s 200m champion Michael Johnson who hugged him, saying: “You are my hero.”

He died in 2006, after that having seen an early version of the film his nephew had made bringing all three athletes together for the first time to tell the story of that iconic event. Both Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave eulogies and were pallbearers at his funeral.