This was written for the October 30th 2012 “Equal Writes” session in Belgrave. I did both a poem and a prose piece explaining the background.
Silver the poem
Strive for the finish
A quick silver race
between two men
skins darker than his
but an agenda shared by all
In the air
He stands, badged with honour
Never again called
Seen to have shamed
By wanting all to stand tall
Peter Norman – Silver medalist – 1968 Olympics
In the 1968 Olympics in Mexico an apprentice butcher from Melbourne threw a cat amongst the pigeons in the 200m heats by breaking the world record, threatening the domination of the US. He took silver in the finals, improving his time again, separating Tommie Smith who won gold (and the then world record) and Jon Carlos who took bronze.
Before the ceremony Tommie and Jon told Peter about their plans to protest racial segregation and inequality with the gloved fist salute, and Peter Norman said “I’ll stand with you”.
On the way out to the podium he borrowed an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge from one of the US rowers and then, when Jon Carlos realised he’d forgotten his pair of gloves, suggested that they share Tommie’s.
That iconic act of defiance had an immediate impact, with the athletes being booed as they left the podium and then ostracised. The two US athletes were expelled from the Games and Peter Norman was reprimanded by the Australian Olympic Committee the day after the race.
Despite being ranked fifth in the world and running qualifying times in the 100m and the 200m before the next Olympics Peter Norman was not selected for the 1972 Munich games, and he later retired from competitive running.
There was no reconciliation, when the 2000 Sydney Olympics happened he was the only Australian olympian to not be invited to participate in the lap of honour, a grievous omission, dashing his hopes.
However, the American team had not forgotten him and he was invited to be their guest of honour, staying with them in the Olympic Village.
When Peter Norman died in 2006 both Tommie Smith and Jon Carlos came to Melbourne to be his pall bearers and to read eulogies, Tommie said “Peter Norman’s legacy is a rock. Stand on that rock.”
Peter Norman’s 1968 finals time is still the Australian 200m record. The day of his funeral is honoured as “Peter Norman Day” by the US Track and Field Federation.