This week has seen the frequent replay of one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history – the black power salute by two brave black athletes, when they took to the winners’ podium in Mexico 1968. But another man was there, too.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in Mexico, while Peter Norman wore a human rights button
200-metre gold and bronze medallists Tommie Smith and John Carlos were booed and thrown out of the stadium for bringing politics into the Games, but their names were engraved on the hearts of every black person in America.
But there was another man standing on the podium that day, the Australian silver medallist Peter Norman, and his fate was sealed then, too. As bronze medallist John Carlos remembers, "The only thing he did wrong was to strive to be the best he could be, in a race that Tommie Smith and I happened to be in."
This week sees the DVD release of Salute, telling the story of how Peter Norman’s Salvation Army upbringing in Melbourne meant he could never stand silently by as his two running colleagues made their protest. Instead, the apprentice butcher wore the same Human Rights badge as they did, and received the same harsh treatment as them.
Peter Norman surprised the Americans, by stealing silver in the 200-metre Olympics final in Mexico 1968
Tommie Smith told HuffPostUK recently, “Peter was a man of integrity. He and his family believed in helping others, that was the job they were doing.
But it put Peter in a negative connotation by wearing the human rights button, it tied him to the black athletes on the victory stand, and the Australian authorities couldn’t tolerate that idea of blackness when it came to freedom because of their own problem in their own country. It wasn’t a surprise that he also faced problems.”
Made by his nephew Matt, the film documents Peter’s journey from Mexico. Despite qualifying as the fifth fastest man in the world, he was not invited to the following Games in Munich, and retired soon afterwards. He experienced divorce, alcohol problems and, occasionally, despair.
When the Games went to Sydney in 2000, Peter was the only home-grown medallist not to be invited to make a lap of honour. This oversight shocked the American team, Ed Moses and Michael Johnson among them, and it was they who contacted Peter and included him in their Olympic celebrations. Michael Johnson told him, “You are my hero.”
When he died in 2006, Tommie Smith and John Carlos flew to Australia to be among his pallbearers. Carlos spoke, too, reminding the packed congregation that Peter Norman had not enjoyed so much support when he needed it back in 1968.
Tommie Smith reflects now, “Peter was a great person, he was tolerant to the idea of human rights issues and he suffered because he showed this on a world platform, not by being second in a race, but by the button he wore.”
And in the film Salute, Peter Norman reflects on his own actions that day in Mexico:
"I'm a firm believer that in a victory ceremony for the Olympics, there's three guys that stand up there, each one's been given about a square metre of God's earth to stand on, and what any one of the three choose to do with his little square metre at that stage is entirely up to him.”
Salute is out on DVD from July 30th, courtesy of Arrow Films. Watch our Exclusive Clip above, and some extraordinary images below proving, as John Carlos says, that politics is never far away from the Olympics...
Other black athletes were inspired...
Tommy Smith in 1968
John Carlos was always an activist for civil rights
John Carlos in 1968
John Carlos and Tommy Smith's battles continued long after 1968
When silver medallist Peter Norman died in 2006, Tommy Smith and John Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral in Australia
A statue at San Jose University to celebrate what Tommy Smith and John Carlos did
Tommy Smith and John Carlos look on as their statue is unveiled in San Jose University