Australian Olympic athlete’s life ruined due to a most courageous act
Everyone knows this iconic picture: it was 1968. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy both had been assassinated. The US is embroiled in a series of race riots in city centers around the country and the Vietnam protest movement was just beginning. The world was standing on the brink of an earth-shattering conflict. And right in the middle of this was the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
It was at this moment of turmoil, uncertainty, and fear, that two Americans made a gesture that will never be forgotten. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the 1st and 3rd fastest people in the world, bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists as "The Star-Spangled Banner" played in honor of Smith's victory in the 200 meters.
But what about the third man? What looks like a normal white man, passively standing by and watching history being made, is anything but that. He is Peter Norman, the fastest Australian in history and, at the time, the 2nd fastest man in the world. Tommie Smith and John Carlos unleashed a global controversy with the black power salute, were expelled from the games and received death threats at home. The two African-Americans were taking a stand for civil rights in the wake of tragedy and setback. But, what almost no one knows is that Peter Norman was standing with them, for human rights across the world. And he paid dearly for it.
Peter Norman came from Australia, a country which, at the time, had similar segregation laws like the U.S. In fact, Australia's discrimination against its native population actually inspired apartheid law in South Africa. Between 1905 and 1969, the Australian government tore about 100,000 aboriginal children from their families and placed them in forced adoptions in order to "civilize" them. An Australian seen interacting with a black man or any other minority group risked everything.
After the memorable race, Norman, who won silver, was approached by Smith and Carlos and asked if he believed in human rights. He said yes. Then they asked him if he believed in God. He said he believed strongly in God. John Carlos will always remember what Norman said next: "I'll stand with you." Carlos recounts seeing not even the slightest trace of fear in his eyes, only love.
Smith and Carlos decided to wear the badge above, a badge representing the athlete-led movement within the Olympics supporting the struggle for equal rights. Norman, who didn't have a badge approached the two Americans and did something unbelievable: “I believe in what you believe. Do you have another one of those for me?" he asked, pointing to the badges emblazoned on their chests. “That way I can show my support for your cause.”
Smith was blown away: “Who is this white Australian guy? He won his silver medal, can’t he just take it and that be enough!” Smith didn't have an extra one, but with some help from another American athlete Norman got his badge. What happened next was history in the making.
The three young athletes took the podium. Smith and Carlos raised their fists in a black power salute. Never before had anyone dared to do something so shocking at the Olympics, to take such a political stand in front of millions. All three knew it was their moment to forever take a stand for what was right, to say all humans were equal. The head of the American Olympic team vowed that all three athletes would pay dearly for the gesture — for the rest of their lives.
History vindicated Smith and Carlos. The statue above was erected at San Jose State University to celebrate them. But, if you look closely, 2nd place is empty. In his absence, the statue is also representative of what happened to Norman after that fateful day. It is quite possibly one of the saddest stories of a hero I've ever read.
Norman was simply erased from history. Banned from the Australian team for the 1972 Olympics, Norman quit professional sports, bouncing around from job to job, working as a gym teacher or butcher. He was labeled an outsider in white Australian society and his family was outcast along with him. A sports injury gave him gangrene, which led the disgraced former athlete into drinking. Norman was eventually diagnosed with alcoholism and depression. John Carlos said of Norman, "Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone."
Norman was given one final chance: condemn his partners in humanity, denounce Smith and Carlos and he would be forgiven. But he knew he had done nothing wrong and refused. In 2006, he died suddenly from a heart attack. Without ever receiving the apology he so greatly deserved. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were both pallbearers at his funeral.
In 2012, Norman was given a formal apology by the Australian government. Apologizing "...to Peter Norman for the wrong done by Australia in failing to send him to the 1972 Munich Olympics, despite repeatedly qualifying; and belatedly recognis[ing] the powerful role that Peter Norman played in furthering racial equality.” It was too little, much too late...
“He paid the price with his choice,” explained Tommie Smith, “It wasn’t just a simple gesture to help us, it was HIS fight. He was a white man, a white Australian man among two men of color, standing up in the moment of victory, all in the name of the same thing”.
Almost 50 years later, we are still fighting for equality and human rights. Norman paid the ultimate price, but his sacrifice proved that equality is everyone's fight. White or black. Honor his memory and help spread his message of love and care by sharing this story. Humanity needs more people like Peter Norman.