‘Heavy price’ – how ‘Black Power’ solidarity changed Aussie sprinter’s life
When a principled Peter Norman stood on the podium alongside two Americans in their famous Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, his place in the history books was sealed.
As sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in silence, their heads bowed in protest calling for racial equality in the United States, Norman made a choice that stayed with him for the rest of his life.
The Australian 200m silver medallist decided to wear an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge to publically demonstrate his solidarity, telling them before the ceremony: “I will stand with you.”
The image of the three men became an iconic symbol of the civil rights movement, but it cost Norman dearly. He was frozen out of future Games selection and airbrushed from Australian Olympic history, with authorities for years judging him to have soiled the name of sport.
Despite this, later in life he told reporters that it was worth it.
“I believe in human rights. Every man is born equal and should be treated that way,” he said.
Joseph Toscano, convenor of the Peter Norman Commemoration Committee, said this statement summed up the man.
“He was a normal person who found himself in an extraordinary situation,” he told AFP. “He made a conscious decision for which he paid a heavy price.”
With the 50th anniversary of his defiance marked this week, and 12 years after his death from a heart attack aged 64, Norman’s actions are finally being noted in Australia.
A statue of the sprinter will be erected in his home city of Melbourne, and Australia will recognise October 9, the date of his funeral in 2006, as Peter Norman Day.
“Initiatives to honour Peter Norman, such as this statue, are seriously overdue,” Athletics Australia president Mark Arbib said last week.
Earlier this year, the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) awarded him a posthumous Order of Merit to mark his contribution to the sporting world.
Australian Olympic officials deny Norman was ever blacklisted or shunned, and was only cautioned at the time to be careful about his public statements.
He retired from athletics after being overlooked for the 1972 Munich Olympics, becoming a sought-after guest speaker and occasional television commentator.
– ‘Extraordinary lack of interest’ –
Despite the belated accolades, Toscano, who is close to Norman’s family, who are patrons of the committee, said there was apathy in Australia for what he had done, given the Black Power salute is one of world’s most historic sporting moments.
“It was an iconic moment of the 20th century for racial equality, but there is still an extraordinary lack of interest in Peter Norman in Australia,” he said.
He noted that despite Norman’s status within the human rights movement, and his 200m Australian record of 20.06 seconds which still stands today, he was not invited to the 2000 Sydney Olympics by the Australian Olympic Committee.
That gesture was left to the US track and field team.
Norman is far more widely recognised internationally than in Australia, with the USA Track and Field Federation the first to declare October 9 as Peter Norman Day.
“His statement ‘I will stand with you’ is still as important 50 years later, that we all have the capacity to be Peter Norman if we take up the challenge,” said Toscano.
When the unsung hero died in 2006, Smith and Carlos led the party of pallbearers at his funeral. Smith said in a eulogy that he was in awe of Norman.
“He was a lone soldier in Australia. Many people in Australia didn’t particularly understand — why would that young white fella go over and stand with those black individuals?” he said.
“Peter was Australian and he was proud to be Australian, he was proud to run and represent Australia.
“But even greater than that he said ‘I’m proud to represent the human race’.”