The picture of Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the Black Power Salute is iconic and instantly recognisable to many. But few people know of the bravery and tragedy of the other guy, the third man.
Australian runner Peter Norman, who won silver at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City actually stood in solidarity on the podium as Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their black-gloved fists in the air in support of African American rights and dignity.
It had been an exciting 200-meter race. Although Norman had finished strong in the qualifying rounds, the other runners underestimated him. It came as a surprise therefore when, at the very end of the medal race, Norman edged in front of John Carlos at the finish line to take second place.
Black Power salute
When Norman found out that Smith and Carlos were going to protest for equality and justice, he gave them the black gloves they wore. In the photo, you can see it’s a single pair.
For many, Norman was seen as just a bystander, or “the white guy” in the photo. A seemingly unimportant character in one of the Olympics’ most iconic moments. What is hard to see in the photo is a small badge he wore that read: “Olympic Project for Human Rights,” an American organisation started the year before to protest global racial injustice. After all, he was coming from Australia, a country that at the time held racial exclusion laws that rivalled apartheid South Africa.
Peter Norman was punished for taking part
While the story around the symbolic photo has often left out Norman, Australia definitely did not forget his actions. In 1972, four years after the incident, Norman was excluded from his country’s Olympic sprinter team in Munich, despite having run qualifying times for the 200 meters thirteen times and the 100 meters five times.
Norman’s career in competitive athletics was over, even though he was so fast that he still holds Australia’s national record. He was ostracised and found it hard to find work
In an interview John Carlos said: “If we were getting beat up, Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.”
Australia offered Norman many chances for redemption. All he had to do was publicly condemn Smith and Carlos’ actions, and he would be embraced for the athletic pioneer he was. More importantly, it was a pardon that would have allowed him to find a stable job through the Australian Olympic Committee and be part of the organisation of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Norman refused.
Instead, Norman continued to fight inequality in his country, speaking against the treatment of aboriginals. He was an apprentice butcher, but later became a teacher working for the Victorian Department of Sport and Recreation towards the end of his life.
Norman contracted gangrene in 1985 after tearing his Achilles tendon during a charity race. This nearly led to his leg being amputated. Depression, heavy drinking and pain killer addiction followed.
John Carlos and Tommie Smith were honoured by their university, San Jose State University in 2005, with a sculpture depicting their famous gesture. Portuguese born artist, Rigo 23, often associated with the Black Power and equal rights movements, constructed the piece in the centre of the university campus.
The statue is 22 feet tall, and notably, the second-place medallist is missing. While Norman stood in solidarity with Smith and Carlos and suffered because of it, he declined to be depicted in the installation.
The empty place allows visitors to stand in his spot on the podium, in solidarity with the civil rights movement for years to come. He did attend the unveiling ceremony where he gave a speech.
In 2006, Norman died from a heart attack. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were his pallbearers among other friends.
Apology from Australia
Six years after his death, the Australian House of Parliament issued an official state apology to Norman. It read:
That this House; Recognises the extraordinary athletic achievements of the late Peter Norman, who won the silver medal in the 200 metres sprint running 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.
Hearing the news, John Carlos said: “There is no one in the nation of Australia that should be honoured, recognised and appreciated more than Peter Norman. He should be recognised for his humanitarian concerns, his character, his strength and his willingness to be a sacrificial lamb for justice.”
Tragically, it is an Honour and recognition that Peter Norman never got to experience. Likewise, it took the United States 40 years before it nationally recognised John Carlos and Tommie Smith for the American heroes they are, when they were presented with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs in 2008.
In 2008 Matt Norman produced a documentary entitled Salute, based on his uncle’s defining moment as part of the American civil rights movement.