SPORTING excellence isn’t always about the achievement; it’s often about the moment.
Australian sprinter Peter Norman perfectly combined the two – the achievement and the moment – in an extraordinary postscript to the 200m men’s final at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.
Norman ran the race of his life, splitting two athletes from the United States, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. He finished with a silver medal after running an Australian record of 19.97 seconds in the final. But, as good as that achievement was, it was the moment that followed which changed his life and forever linked him with Smith and Carlos.
It would become one of the seminal moments in Olympic history, with Norman playing his own unique part.
Smith and Carlo each raised a gloved fist in protest at the treatment of African Americans in what would become known as the Black Power Salute. They would be expelled from the Games and sent home, with Smith later saying that people “shunned (him) like hot lava.” Norman, for his part, wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge and stood dignified on the dais, in solidarity with the two Americans.
He never backed away from the support he gave to Smith and Carlos, despite suffering his own backlash to that seismic moment in Mexico City. It was for this reason that Peter Norman is awarded The Dawn Award in 2022 – more than 50 years after the moment that defined his life and 16 years after his death.
Peter Norman arrived in Mexico City for the 1968 Olympic Games having never bettered 20.5 seconds for his signature 200 metres event. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were expected to be the hardest to beat, but Norman managed to split the pair in the final with an Australian record time of 19.97 seconds. It launched him into one of the most controversial moments in Olympic history. With clenched fists wrapped in symbolic black gloves, and shoeless to highlight the plight of poverty-stricken African Americans, Smith and Carlos gave a ‘Black Power’ salute as the American flag was raised and the national anthem rang out across the packed stadium. The symbolism was unmistakable; the powerful message still rings true more than half a century later.
Upon Norman’s return home, he faced mixed reaction from the public for his part in the protest. While many in the community respected and admired his stance, others were less enthusiastic and some even denigrated his involvement. He was ostracised from some sections of the Australian sporting communities, which created a split on the perceived consequences of his actions. Some believe Norman was not selected for the 1972 Olympics, despite running some qualification times, as a result of his stance on the podium. Others argued it was the fact he had not won the selection trial which prevented his inclusion.
He was overlooked for any official role as part of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, except for team announcements in his hometown of Melbourne. It was left to the United States to ensure Norman was adequately recognised in their own pre-Games events and announcements. The respect and admiration he received from Smith and Carlos was never more evident than when they travelled to Australia in 2006 to deliver eulogies and act as pallbearers at Norman’s funeral, after his death at 64.
In 2012 the Australian Government issued an apology for the way Norman had been treated following the medal ceremony. At the time, the Australian Olympic Council maintained that he had never been penalised and was only cautioned for his part in it. They did, however, admit they had been negligent in not properly recognising the significant role he played in an event that has become an important symbol for human rights around the world.
In 2018, Athletics Australia celebrated his contribution by creating the ‘Peter Norman Humanitarian Award’ to honour the legacy of Norman as both an athlete and an advocate for human rights.
The unmistakable courage and humanity Norman showed that October day in 1968 in taking a stand against racism alongside Smith and Carlos was a message that resonated around the world both then – and forever more