The inspirational activist and former athlete John Carlos recently visited the UK, speaking at a number of meetings where his message of how sport can play a part in anti-racist struggle was, quite properly, very well received. John Carlos’s visit reminded us of his defiant ’black power’ salute, together with fellow black American Tommie Smith at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. It was captured in this famous photo:
Peter Norman (left) Tommie Smith (centre) and John Carlos (right).
When I recently re-blogged a Workers Liberty article about John Carlos and reproduced the photo, I made no mention of the white guy on the left. Like (I suspect) most people, I had no idea and no particular interest in who he was. In fact, I thought he looks a bit embarrassed and, with his back turned to Smith and Carlos, assumed he’s trying to keep his distance from them.
How wrong can you be?
It’s Peter Norman, the Australian silver-medallist in the 200-meter event won by Smith. Not only was he not trying to “keep his distance” – he’d been in on the gesture and, indeed, helped Smith and Carlos plan it. If you look closely at the picture you’ll see that although he isn’t saluting (presumably he thought that would be inappropriate for a white non-American), he’s wearing on his chest, the same round badge as Smith and Carlos. It was the badge of the anti-racist Olympic Project for Human Rights.
According to Kathy Marks in today’s Independent, “On their way to the podium, the two Americans had told Norman what they intended to do. He helped them plan the moment, suggesting they each don a black glove.”
Smith and Carlos suffered grieviously as a result of their protest: they both received death threats and Carlos’s life went into crisis, culminating in the suicide of his wife. But, eventually, both received official recognition and exoneration in their homeland and are now generally acknowledged as the heroes they are.
Not so Norman. To this day he remains shunned and reviled by the Australian sporting establishment. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics every then-living Australian Olympian was invited to take a lap of honour – except Norman. The US team, appalled by this snub, invited him to join them and treated him with the respect and honour he’d been denied by the Australian Olympic Committee.
Despite qualifying for both the 100- and 200- metre sprints, he was not selected for the 1972 Munich Olympics. He retired shortly after that and fell into depression and alcoholism.
Last night, the federal parliament of Australia (without the support of the Australian Olympic Committee) went some way to giving Norman a little justice: they formally apologised for the treatment he’d received and passed a motion recognising his “extraordinary athletic achievements.” The motion also acknowledges his bravery in supporting Smith and Carlos and his work in “furthering racial equality.”
Andrew Leigh, the Labour backbencher who proposed the motion, said this:
“In the simple act of wearing that badge, Peter Norman…showed us that the action of one person can make a difference. It’s a message that echoes down to us today. Whether refusing to tolerate a racist joke or befriending a new migrant, each of us can – and all of us should – be a Peter Norman in our own lives.”
Norman’s sister and 91-year old mother were present, but not the man himself. He died of a heart attack in 2006, aged 64.