TAK­ING A STAND

When Aus­tralian track star Peter Nor­man sup­ported his fel­low medal­lists’ de­ci­sion to give the black power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games, he threw him­self into the mid­dle of a po­lit­i­cal firestorm - and as a new book re­veals, be­came a pariah back home

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Front Page -

own in the locker room af­ter the 200 me­tre race at the 1968 Sum­mer Olympics, the three medal­lists were left alone, away from the din of 50,000 fans gath­ered at Es­ta­dio Olímpico Univer­si­tario in Mex­ico City. Aus­tralian sil­ver medal­list Peter Nor­man and Amer­i­can bronze medal­list John Car­los had en­gaged in some an­gry sledg­ing for weeks, but the race was now over. Nor­man ex­tended his hand to Car­los, who looked him in the eye, smiled and then shook it. “The most im­por­tant thing I did that day was shake John’s hand af­ter the race,” Nor­man said. “That made me part of what he and [gold medal­list] Tom­mie [Smith] were go­ing to do. They knew they could trust me.”

While the im­age and mo­ment has not dulled with time, the sto­ries and cir­cum­stances of what hap­pened next cer­tainly have. The sym­bol­ism of the props used isn’t in dis­pute. The black gloves on Smith’s and Car­los’s fists rep­re­sented unity and strength. The beads around Car­los’s neck sig­ni­fied the count­less lynch­ings of African–amer­i­can peo­ple over the course of the United States’ trou­bled his­tory. The ab­sence of run­ning shoes, with black socks worn in­stead, was a nod to the poverty that had kept them down­trod­den for gen­er­a­tions, whether they were work­ing in the cot­ton fields of Alabama or steal­ing food off freight trains to give to the poor in Har­lem.

“We are in the Olympic Project for Hu­man Rights,” Car­los said. “Do you be­lieve in hu­man rights?” Nor­man smiled. He told him about his back­ground, about the way his par­ents had been em­bed­ded in the Sal­va­tion Army and taught him to con­sider ev­ery per­son equally. “Of course I be­lieve in hu­man rights,” he told them. Nor­man was the first Aus­tralian men’s sprinter to reach the fi­nal of the 200 me­tres, and when he fin­ished sec­ond to Smith, he said, “For­get about the fastest white man in the world. They don’t have age di­vi­sions or colour di­vi­sions in the top ech­e­lons of sport. You ei­ther are, or you are not, the fastest.”

The colour of Nor­man’s skin didn’t mat­ter in this con­text, but Car­los later said he thought the ac­tions of one white man that night meant ev­ery­thing. “For Peter to say, ‘Hey man. I re­spect you. I re­spect the hu­man race. Let me wear that but­ton.’ This was about our plight in the US. Here’s a guy from the other side of the world who be­lieved in the hu­man race, he be­lieved in hu­man­ity, he be­lieved in God. I would die for him.”

Nor­man knew the grav­ity of what was about to come. The racial di­vide in Amer­ica was im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore at that mo­ment in his­tory, whether it was in the news­pa­per or on the tele­vi­sion news.

As all three men walked to­wards the dais, the crowd got a glimpse of Smith and Car­los, both shoe­less and each hold­ing a Puma run­ning shoe. But no­body jeered or booed. No­body knew what was about to come.

Af­ter the trio re­ceived their medals and faced the Amer­i­can and Aus­tralian flags, ‘The Star-span­gled Ban­ner’ started to play. The whole sta­dium fell silent. Tom­mie Smith and John Car­los had raised their fists in the air and bowed their heads. “Tom­mie and John were be­hind me, so I couldn’t see what was hap­pen­ing,” Nor­man said. “But I knew they’d ac­tu­ally gone through with it when the voice from the stands faded into noth­ing.”

In his 22 years as the quick-fin­gered pho­tog­ra­pher for Life mag­a­zine, John Do­mi­nis never missed the shot. He saw gold medal­list Tom­mie Smith with head bowed and raised right fist in the air, wear­ing a black glove; bronze medal­list John Car­los with left fist in the air, also wear­ing a black glove, with his USA

track­suit opened and beads around his neck; and at the front stood Peter Nor­man in the green and gold-striped track­suit of Aus­tralia, look­ing gun­bar­rel straight ahead. Each of them had an Olympic Project for Hu­man Rights badge pinned to their chest. Smith and Car­los both had their run­ning shoes off, wear­ing black socks.

Do­mi­nis fired off the shot. Many years later, it was named in Time mag­a­zine’s 100 Most In­flu­en­tial Images of All Time. The si­lence that hushed over the crowd in the Olympic Sta­dium dragged on. When the an­them was over, the three men trudged off and walked to­wards the tun­nel of the sta­dium. That’s when the boos, jeers and racist sledges be­gan. The few Aus­tralian fans in the crowd kept ap­plaud­ing Nor­man as he left the track.

Nor­man was stunned by the re­ac­tion of the US press. “They weren’t den­i­grat­ing the flag,” he said.“they weren’t den­i­grat­ing the an­them be­ing played.they weren’t there to pro­claim black supremacy. They were there to pro­claim black equal­ity… I had a lot of de­trac­tors when I came home. There were quite a few in ath­letic cir­cles who thought I’d done the wrong thing. But I was never re­ally threat­ened in any way.” Asked if he would do it again, he replied: “Yes. In a flash.”

Rae­lene Boyle wasn’t in the sta­dium dur­ing the medal pre­sen­ta­tion; she was warm­ing up out­side. “Peter Nor­man went over there a rel­a­tive un­known, split Car­los and Smith, and be­came very much a well-known fig­ure. His run in the 200 me­tres was ex­tra­or­di­nary but un­for­tu­nately his per­for­mance on the track was over­shad­owed by stand­ing on the dais with Smith and Car­los and hav­ing a badge on a track­suit. We for­get when we think about Peter he was ac­tu­ally a great sprinter.”

When he fi­nally ar­rived home from the Olympics, his wife, Ruth, found a changed man. “Stand­ing on the dais, the black power salute from the two gen­tle­men on that stand, had an im­pact on Peter. He came home and he was a dif­fer­ent per­son. Our lives weren’t our own any­more. He had be­come ev­ery­one else’s per­son.” This is an edited ex­tract from The Peter Nor­man Story by An­drew Web­ster and Matt Nor­man (Macmil­lan Aus­tralia, $34.99) out on Tues­day.

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