White Australia has a black history #2

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This is a well known image taken on this day in 1968 at the Mexico Olympics. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists as The Star- Spangled banner played. They were drawing attention to the US Civil Rights movement.

Martin Luther King Jr had been assassinated a few months earlier. Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his title and had his boxing licence cancelled. In the US there were protests over civil rights and the not so popular Vietnam War.

Many don’t know that the Australian standing on the podium paid a high price for his involvement in this historic moment.

Peter Norman heralded from Coburg, Melbourne. His father was a butcher.

Norman stood out for his speed on the athletic track. His father often borrowed spikes for his son because they couldn’t afford to buy a pair. His talent quickly attracted State and then National attention. His signature strength was his finishing speed. He was the fastest athlete in the world, over the last 50 metres of the 200 metres sprint.

He was five times national 200 metres champion.

In Mexico, he won his heat in Olympic record time of 20.17 seconds.

And so it was on this day in Mexico City, the two Americans thought they had secured first and second place in the final of the men’s 200 meters, when the Australian stormed to the tape to pinch second place.

Tommie Smith won in the world record time of 19.83 seconds. Norman finished in 20.06 seconds and Carlos in 20.10.

Smith and Carlos had planned a protest for the podium. They spoke to Norman about their plans.

Martin Flanagan (in 2006) reported it as follows:

They asked Norman if he believed in human rights. He said he did. They asked him if he believed in God. Norman, who came from a Salvation Army background, said he believed strongly in God. We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat. He said, ‘I’ll stand with you’. Carlos said he expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes. He didn’t; ‘I saw love.’”

Smith and Carlos took to the podium without shoes symbolising poverty. Smith wore a black scarf for black pride. Carlos wore beads to protest the many black lynchings back home. All three athletes wore patches for The Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organisation of prominent Olympic athletes seeking to expose the mistreatment in the US athletes of colour.

However, when they arrived at the podium Carlos realised he had forgotten his black gloves. Norman suggested they share Smith’s pair and so each of the American sprinters raised different arms.

The International Olympic Committee, suspended the three athletes and evicted them from the Village.

Eventually Smith and Carlos returned to professional sport through American football.

However, for the rest of his life, Norman was never recognised for his stand for racial equality.

He was not selected for the 1972 Olympics. His non-selection was shrouded in controversy. He ran qualifying times in 1971 but came third in the trials. He said he carried an injury into the trials. Many said he should have been allowed to defend his medal.

Controversy followed him into the Sydney Olympics. He did participate in some events in Melbourne but was not flown to Sydney for the main attraction.

He died in 2006, age 64 years.

In 2010, Norman was inducted into the Athletics Australia Hall of Fame.

In 2012, he received a Parliamentary apology which read in part”

“(The Parliament)….

apologises to Peter Norman for the treatment he received upon his return to Australia, and the failure to fully recognise his inspirational role before his untimely death in 2006”

Written by

Lawyer with varied interests including politics, technology, religion, business management, literature, coaching, social justice, sport, education and humour.

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