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The other man on the podium

By Caroline Frost

Peter Norman wore a badge supporting the protest

When Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave a gloved Black Power salute on the Olympic podium in October 1968 it sent a shockwave through sport. But what happened to the other man on the platform?

Forty years ago, two black Americans, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, won gold and bronze medals in the 200m final at the Mexico Olympics, and used their time on the victory podium to protest with a Black Power salute.

The photograph of the two men with their heads bowed, each of them with an arm raised in the air and a fist clothed in a black leather glove, is one of the most striking images of the 20th Century.

Their actions caused havoc at the Games, ensuring the pair were ejected from the US Olympic team. But three men won medals in that race, and the consequences for the third athlete on the podium would be every bit as significant.

The silver medallist was a laid-back Australian, an up-and-coming runner called Peter Norman who, in the words of his coach, "blossomed like a cactus" when he got to Mexico. While observers expected the Americans to make a clean sweep of the 200m medals, Norman kept them interested by breaking the world record in the heats.

BLACK POWER SALUTE
Raised fist traditionally used as salute by left-wingers and radicals
Origins of gesture's adoption unknown
Fist symbols adopted by Black Panthers in the 1960s

An apprentice butcher from Melbourne, he had learned to run in a pair of borrowed spikes. More significantly, he had grown up in a Salvation Army family, with a set of simple but strong values instilled from an early age.

As his nephew Matt Norman, director of the new film, Salute, remembers: "The whole Norman family were brought up in the Salvos, so we knew we had to look after our fellow man, but that was about it."

In Mexico, that was enough for Norman, who felt compelled to join forces with his fellow athletes in their stand against racial inequality.

Peter Norman running a race
Norman was one of Australia's foremost athletes but was ostracised

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 repercussions for Norman were immediate. 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.

Sydney hope

Divorce and ill health all weighed down on him over the next few years. He suffered depression, drank heavily and grew addicted to painkillers after a lengthy hospital stay. During that time, he used his silver medal as a door-stop.

One of the things that kept him going was the hope that he would be welcomed and recognised at the Sydney Olympics. As his nephew puts it: "Then his life would have come full circle."

Peter Norman at the monument marking the salute
The US monument to the protest has an empty space

He was to be disappointed. In 2000, Peter Norman found himself the only Australian Olympian to be excluded from making a VIP lap of honour at the Games, despite his status as one of the best sprinters in the home country's history.

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."

In 2004, Peter's nephew Matt started work on Salute, a documentary that, for the first time, brought all three athletes together in a room to tell their story of that day in Mexico.

Two years later, Peter had just seen the film for the first time and was about to embark on a publicity tour to the US when he had a heart attack and died. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, to whom he had always stayed close, travelled to Melbourne to act as pallbearers at his funeral, and remember their friend.

Empty place

"Peter didn't have to take that button [badge], Peter wasn't from the United States, Peter was not a black man, Peter didn't have to feel what I felt, but he was a man," says Carlos.

"He was that committed, and I didn't know that," adds Smith.

In 2004, a 23ft statue honouring Smith and Carlos was erected in San Jose State University. This huge replica shows each of them with their fists in the air, just as they stood four decades ago in Mexico.

The three men from the podium
Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman's funeral

The place for the silver medallist is empty. It is where students and tourists stand to have their picture taken, when they want to take their place in sporting history.

In the film now being shown all over Australia, the absent athlete reflects on his legacy.

"I'm a firm believer that in a victory ceremony for the Olympics, there's three guys that stand up there, each one's been given about a square metre of God's earth to stand on, and what any one of the three choose to do with his little square metre at that stage is entirely up to him.

"If it hadn't been for that demonstration on that day, it would have just been another silver medal that Australia picked up along the line. No one would ever have heard of Peter Norman."

The film Salute is now on release in Australia, and being shown at various film festivals around the world.


Below is a selection of your comments.

I have seen the monument at SJSU, and while there is no representation of Mr Norman on the silver medal platform, it is not inappropriate. I remember being told of his alliance to the US athletes when I was young and when you stand in his place at the monument, you get a sense that he represented the best role model for the "everyman." In some ways, his alliance in that moment is an example we should all copy.
Tina, Arkansas, US

As an Australian it makes me sad that I've never heard about Peter until today. He is an example of someone who has true empathy for others - I wish we'd had a chance to applaud him during his life
Cat, London

Being from the city dubbed, Track Town US, I've seen this iconic photo in dorm rooms, friend's houses and even a local pub, yet I never once thought about Norman's role. The San Jose St Memorial really should include Norman as well as not a single person would have questioned him had he not worn the badge. It's sad that Australia ostracized him until the very end of his life when he really should a be celebrated hero who when beyond sports to support equality of his fellow man.
Greg Gant, Eugene, OR, United States

The Australian government gave Norman the world platform for athletic performance, not political statements. The black power salute is a socialist symbol. The two largest socialist countries in the world (China & Russia) have a terrible record of treating minorities. All three of those athletes in the photo should be ashamed of themselves.
Ryan Nichols, Fairfax, Virginia, United States

I had the honour of meeting Mr Peter Norman in Australia during a function organized by the Fiji National Olympic Committee during the 2000 Olympic Games. Mr Norman was the guest of honour. If I'm not mistaken his record in the 200m still stands 40 years later. I guess this speaks volumes of Mr Norman the athlete.
Albert Miller, Suva, Fiji

I must say this piece really touched me, it shows how the real outlook to humanity was. That singular act by Peter Norman did not just bring him to public notice, but actually showed we had good men back then who really didn't mind about difference in race, and empathised with others in what they passed through. I never knew this part of history. I think the statue that depicts the two Americans should be modified to include Peter Norman somehow.
Kelechi Kehinde Uguru, Lagos, Nigeria

There seems something slightly inappropriate about the monument omitting Norman - it is a statue celebrating standing up for equality, but scrubbing the man who is thought not quite as equal as the others.
William, Cambridge, UK

One hopes the film Salute will lead to the recognition Peter Norman deserves and to the righting of this wrong, albeit posthumously. The Olympics are supposed to be apolitical but the Chinese games were a political showpiece - though not to rival Berlin's in 1936 when Jesse Owens showed up Hitler's claims of Aryan superiority. To punish Peter Norman is a stain on the Olympic Movement. Perhaps Boris Johnson should sanction a ceremony to commemorate Peter Norman at the 2012 games. Australia House is in Trafalgar Square and there is a vacant plinth. A sculpture with all three athletes could be put there for the duration of the games.
John Greenwood, Loughborough

Wow - that's brought a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat. A true hero for our times, making a small, simple yet mighty protest. He should not be forgotten.
Simon Cope, High Wycombe, UK

From a country that has such a diverse cultural and ethnic community, the Australian Olympic Committee should be truly ashamed.
Ian Marshall, Manchester

People should be careful how they conduct themselves when representing their country. Something that a lot of international sportsmen and women all too easily forget. The moment you accept the invitation to wear that jersey, and represent your nation, you must accept that your personal views are no longer your primary objective. I have great respect for men and women who stand up for their beliefs, but I wonder how much more Mr Norman could have achieved if he had become a spokesperson for the subject and used his fame from the Olympics as a springboard, rather than ending his career (albeit unfairly) under a shadow.
John Turnbull, Derby, England, UK

John, what a hackneyed excuse for ignoring injustice. Seems that Peter Norman chose the perfect time, and helped to create an iconic moment in Olympic history. Incidentally, Jesse Owens waited until he got home to comment upon the treatment of black athletes compared to white athletes in the US - and was vilified and deselected from the US team just a few months after his famous victories in Berlin. Precisely the reason the salute had to happen.
Rob Whatman, Brighton, UK

I'm a black American and have been to Australia at least a dozen times. Australia is trying very hard to wipe out its racist history which is similar to the US. Peter was good man who suffered because Australia did not want to offend America. Rest in peace, Peter.
Ormond J Gilbert, Goose Creek, SC, US

I was chuffed to read this and see how a Christian upbringing sensitised this brave Aussie to support the other two.
Tony F, Worthing, England


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