Remembering Peter Norman

By Walik Edwards
Updated: October 4, 2006

This article first appear on BASN in 2005.

A sign of defiance

A sign of defiance

CALIFORNIA (BASN)—Because even us BlackAthlete writers need some time off, I’ll take this time to wish everyone the most informative Black History Month ever, and to say keep you and yours safe, and be good to one another. I’ve been looking at where I’ve been with BASN, and it would be a good time to re-visit some of those columns that were special to readers out there, which meant they were special to me as well.

This first one was influenced from an e-mail I received from a man named Matt Norman. His uncle Peter is the third man included in the famous photo from the 1968 Summer Olympics where Tommie Smith and John Carlos have their black-gloved fists raised to the sky on the medal dais in Mexico City.

Mr. Norman gracefully thanked me for the story, because, in his words, it was the rare time someone concentrated on that third character, and talked to any part of America about the man who won the silver medal in that race, and the story between the three men that very few know about.

He’s also working on a feature based on his uncle’s experience from that point in time, and has asked me to talk on screen about my column, and whatever I know about the story as a whole. I know plenty, so I think I’ll do well, and will talk it up to death when the film comes out.

Enough of my chattering; here’s the original:

Going back to the Summer Games of ’68, the most significant events from that Olympic chapter would come during the men’s 200-meter medal ceremonies. Unless you’ve been locked up in a cave, or have been exclusively reading your sketchily written text books, you’ll know that John Carlos and Tommie Smith each held up a fist encased in a black glove during the playing of the American national anthem to give notice to the plight of the Black American during that era.

It’s become one of the most famous photographs in history, but what you might not know or remember, is that Carlos and Smith were sent home soon after their display, in shame. The “shame” was America’s, and not from Carlos nor Smith, and the ‘shame’ of a whole country, overshadows all the correct sentiment meant by a gesture, hence the involuntary plane trip back home.

The third man on the podium that day, surrounded by the moment, was an Australian runner named Peter Norman.

Pete had wheels, because just 21 hours prior, he broke the world record in this particular race in the prelims to get to the finals.

Now, John Carlos whether it was a psych technique or just trash-talking, had a message delivered to Norman that he was going to beat him by saying, “you tell that white boy I’m gonna lick his ass!” (The word “lick” in those days meant “beat”, so don’t get crazy).

Norman has more than just an in-your-face message with a cocky runner to concern himself with because his athletic coach would introduce him to the great Jesse Owens. The encounter with Owens totally knocked him out, and who could blame him. He was then given a big wish of luck by legendary Aussie commentator Lou Richards.

The thing that astonished Norman about these encounters is that both men knew who he was, and for that, he was greatly honored, and a little psyched to run a good race”..which he would do.

Unfortunately for Carlos, he might’ve been better off with putting laxatives in Norman’s water or something, because the Australian runner easily beat him out for the silver medal behind Tommie Smith’s first place finish and the gold medal.

When they all reached the lounge to set up for the medal awards ceremony, Smith and Carlos began to talk about their commitment to make a stand with the black-gloved gesture. Almost immediately, Norman asked if there was anything he could do to show support. The Americans gave him a human rights badge to wear during the ceremonies, and Norman didn’t hesitate to put it on.

Norman’s family was heavy into supporting the Salvation Army and human rights back in his native Melbourne, so it was a piece of cake for him to not only ask to support the cause, but to show support for the cause as well.

As Carlos and Smith caught their boo-birds from the crowd in attendance, Norman had to endure a barrage of questions from the international press as to why, and how he decided to make himself a part of that “shameful” act. This was especially intriguing to the press because Carlos and Smith’s gesture was despicable to most, and Norman’s own Australia had only begun counting Aborigines as citizens in 1967.

In his statements, Norman told the press that neither Smith nor Carlos blamed him for what was happening to them, and that he had spent time trying to get the Aboriginal people to be counted as humans (my word, not his) in the land they lived in, once upon a time in peace.

When he finally met up with Australian Olympic team manager Julius Patching, he asked Norman what happened because of the bloodletting that was being thirsted by the press. He simply replied to Patching, “I won a silver medal.” Patching then told Norman that he was being urged to send the runner home and be reprimanded in the process.

After that, he told Norman to consider himself reprimanded and asked him if he wanted any tickets to the hockey game that night.

As Norman suspected, his participation wouldn’t be shunned by everybody in Australia, and even with his country’s “white man policy”, there were enough backers to make him proud of what he did, and in a small way, got some of the important people to open their eyes to what’s happening in their own backyard.

The three gentlemen, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and Peter Norman don’t whoop it up every week these days. None of them do, but they also realize the tie that binds them all together forever. A tie knotted in 3 minutes time, which cannot be loosened.

While the Australian Olympic committee hadn’t called upon Peter Norman to help in any capacity in the past, they decided that a new millennium breeds a new dawn in making a great historical gesture part of a future that is hopefully filled with human kindness, unity, and retribution for ALL in Australia.

As is the case here in the United States, the process will take a long time coming Down Under, but now they have the stage to show what they can become if they allow those people who are fighting to become equals to shine through, not only with a dynamic light show and opening ceremonies performance, but to let them say, “we’re here!”, and do something about their presence in the land, because one step at a time is fine, because a step is a step.

This was written during the 2000 Sydney Games, and the feedback I received from Matt Norman was that his family was raised color blind, and that he was influenced in a positive way by the actions of his uncle on that day in Mexico City.

I will endorse the film, not because I’ve been asked to be a part of it, but it represents an act of unity where athletics was held in one hand, but the fight for unity and equal rights for the entire human race was held in the other. It was a brief statement made by all three men, and a film only does any of them justice, but it is the way things can go with some brief understanding of the man standing in the blocks just inches away from you.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos understood. Peter Norman already knew it. Let’s hope more get it in time, too.