It is said that every picture tells a story and in the spirit of the Olympic games, we’d like to relate to you a sad yet empowering one.
Rewind to the Mexico games of 1968 and that iconic image of two African Americans, their fists held aloft as they stood on the podium, each with a hand clad in a single black glove in protest at the treatment of African Americans and the poverty many endured.
Tommie Smith had won the gold medal for the 200-metre race and his fellow countryman John Carlos had earned the bronze in the same race but as the Star-Spangled Banner rang out they stood not in triumph but shoeless; symbolic of poverty, each with one hand raised above their heads in protest, their faces not beaming but sombre and bowed down. A brave move in a time of high racial tension and with the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King and John Fitzgerald Kennedy still vivid in the hearts and minds of people across America and the world.
Although the photograph is well known and the protest immediately apparent, what is far less well known is the story of the third man on that podium and the part he played in the story, silver medallist Peter Norman.
Prior to the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos had approached Norman to inform him of their intention to use the moment as a platform for their protest and inquired of Norman if he was a believer in human rights and of God. Carlos reported that the Australian runner; who had broken an Aussie record with his performance which still stands to this day, said that yes he was very much a supporter of human rights and having come from a Salvation Army background, was a strong believer in God and he did not hesitate to offer his support. This at a time when his own homeland of Australia had a policy akin to that of South African apartheid.
There was a hitch though, Carlos had left his black gloves back in the Olympic village and it was Norman who suggested they each wear a single glove, hence each is seen raising opposing hands in the famous image. Furthermore, pinned to Norman’s chest is a human rights badge he had acquired from a white American teammate of Carlos and Smith, rower Paul Hoffman to show his support.
The consequences for Norman following the protest were lifelong. Although he qualified with ease for the subsequent Olympics, Australia did not send a team to represent their nation to the 1972 games. Norman went on to work as a gym teacher and in a butcher shop in subsequent years, his athletic career all but over for the stand he had made.
Many years later at the San Jose university campus, a statue was erected in honour of Smith and Carlos’ stand, each represented with fists in the air on a podium. Norman was not present though and Carlos felt strongly that he too had earned his place alongside himself and Smith and so-called the Australian to discuss the matter with his old friend. Norman’s response floored the American when he told him that the silver medal place must remain empty, leaving room for any man or woman to stand there and make their own individual stand for human rights.
Norman’s love for running never waned but in 1985, following a charity race, he almost lost a leg when a torn Achilles tendon became gangrenous. Depression, painkiller addiction and heavy drinking ensued and Norman died of a heart attack in 2006 in Melbourne at the age of 64.
Perhaps the most poignant image though is that of both Smith and Carlos carrying Norman’s coffin at his funeral, each having stood on another podium to pay tribute to their friend as they gave a eulogy to him.
It was only in 2012 that the Australian government issued a posthumous apology to Peter Norman for the treatment he received after simply doing the right thing.
When speaking of Peter Norman, John Carlos recalled expecting to see fear present in Norman’s eyes when asking him to support him and Smith but said he remembered seeing “only love” there.