This October is the 45th anniversary of the 1968 Summer Olympics and one of the most iconic events in American history, the raised fists of U.S. track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand.
However, relatively little has been written and published in popular culture about the equally courageous man who occupied the second place podium in that memorable moment, an Australian named Peter Norman.
The spring and summer of 1968 was a tumultuous time, which is why the Olympics were moved to October. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April and Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in June. August saw the Soviet army invading Czechoslovakia to quash dissent and the Chicago police brutalizing protests at the Democratic National Convention. Just days before the Games in Mexico City, the Mexican Army slaughtered demonstrating students in what became known as the Tlateloco Massacre. It is within this volatile crucible of political events that our story takes place.
In the year preceding the Games, a number of athletes, primarily athletes of color, had been organizing under the banner of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. The Olympians wanted the United States to boycott the Mexico City Games unless their four central demands were met. They were:
1) Reinstatement of Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight boxing title as he was stripped for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War;
2) Ban all countries that practiced apartheid like South Africa and Rhodesia, especially if they sent all-white teams to the Games;
3) Remove Avery Brundage as head of the International Olympic Committee due to his long-time sympathizing with and apologist behavior for racist regimes;
4) More racially diverse hiring practices in coaching.
Although a boycott failed to develop, one of the most memorable acts in sports and political protest did.
As the awarding of the medals was being prepared, Smith and Carlos informed Norman of their intentions. He endorsed their act and suggested the glove-sharing that is visible in the photo since Carlos had forgotten his that fateful day. As the three were preparing to mount the medal stand, Norman ran over to another Olympian and borrowed his Olympic Project for Human Rights button which he proudly wore as Smith and Carlos raised their fists into the night sky.
The act of Smith and Carlos may have focused on U.S. discrimination and poverty, but it was a stunning rebuke of human rights violations around the globe.
The concept of human rights violations and discriminatory behavior was not foreign to Norman. His was a nation that did not allow Aboriginal people the right to vote until the 1970s and stole children away from Aboriginal families to assimilate them. By endorsing the Olympics protest and openly supporting the OPHR, Norman was, by association, standing up against his own government’s unjust policies as well as supporting the Americans’ protest against racial injustice.
When Peter Norman returned to Australia, he was publicly attacked by media figures and politicians and also faced reprisals on the track.
Despite qualifying a number of times for different races, the Australian government refused to send Peter Norman or any male sprinters to the 1972 Summer Games in Munich.
The attacks and reprisal got so bad that Norman ultimately left the sport. He died of a heart attack in 2006 at age 64. On the day of his funeral, Oct. 9, 2006, the U.S. Track and Field Federation named it Peter Norman Day to reflect the international importance Norman had. The camaraderie of the the three was apparent as Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral.
As time passed and vindication came for Smith and Carlos, it came this August to the family of Peter Norman. The Australian Parliament formally apologized for the treatment Norman received and lauded the incredibly courageous stand he took against injustice.
On this anniversary of the 1968 Olympics and the anniversary of his death, let us never forget the indelible impact of Peter Norman on sports, politics and the world in which we live. As we sit upon the growing issues of human rights concerns in Sochi, Rio, Qatar and other locations of these global mega-sports events of the Olympics/World Cup, let us also not forget the lessons learned from these athletes and the importance of using the platform of sport to speak out.