October 11th, 2015
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Norman was a white man from Australia, a country that had strict apartheid laws, almost as strict as South Africa. There was tension and protests in the streets of Australia following heavy restrictions on non-white immigration and discriminatory laws against aboriginal people, some of which consisted of forced adoptions of native children to white families.
The two Americans had asked Norman if he believed in human rights. Norman said he did. They asked him if he believed in God, and he, who had been in the Salvation Army, said he believed strongly in God. “We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat, and he said “I’ll stand with you” – remembers John Carlos – “I expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes, but instead we saw love.”
…But then Norman did something else. “I believe in what you believe. Do you have another one of those for me”? he asked, pointing to the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the others’ chests. “That way I can show my support for your cause.” Smith admitted to being astonished, ruminating: “Who is this white Australian guy? He won his silver medal, can’t he just take it and that be enough!”.
Smith responded that he didn’t, also because he would not be denied his badge. There happened to be a white American rower with them, Paul Hoffman, an activist with the Olympic Project for Human Rights. After hearing everything he thought “if a white Australian is going to ask me for an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, then by God he would have one!” Hoffman didn’t hesitate: “I gave him the only one I had: mine”.
…Back in the change-resisting, whitewashed Australia he was treated like an outsider, his family outcast, and work impossible to find. For a time he worked as a gym teacher, continuing to struggle against inequalities as a trade unionist and occasionally working in a butcher shop. An injury caused Norman to contract gangrene which led to issues with depression and alcoholism.
As John Carlos said, “If we were getting beat up, Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.” For years Norman had only one chance to save himself: he was invited to condemn his co-athletes, John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s gesture in exchange for a pardon from the system that ostracized him.
A pardon that would have allowed him to find a stable job through the Australian Olympic Committee and be part of the organization of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Norman never gave in and never condemned the choice of the two Americans.
Only in 2012 did the Australian Parliament approve a motion to formally apologize to Peter Norman and rewrite him into history with this statement:
This House “recognises the extraordinary athletic achievements of the late Peter Norman, who won the silver medal in the 200 meters sprint running event at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, in a time of 20.06 seconds, which still stands as the Australian record”.
“Acknowledges the bravery of Peter Norman in donning an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the podium, in solidarity with African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave the ‘black power’ salute”.
“Apologises to Peter Norman for the wrong done by Australia in failing to send him to the 1972 Munich Olympics, despite repeatedly qualifying; and belatedly recognises the powerful role that Peter Norman played in furthering racial equality”.
However, perhaps, the words that remind us best of Peter Norman are simply his own words when describing the reasons for his gesture, in the documentary film “Salute,” written, directed and produced by his nephew Matt.
“I couldn’t see why a black man couldn’t drink the same water from a water fountain, take the same bus or go to the same school as a white man.
There was a social injustice that I couldn’t do anything about from where I was, but I certainly hated it.
It has been said that sharing my silver medal with that incident on the victory dais detracted from my performance.
On the contrary.
I have to confess, I was rather proud to be part of it”.