Today I want to tell you a story about hope, aspiration and opportunity – of three Olympic athletes who decided to take a stand against the inequalities of their time. It was on the morning of 1968 at the Mexico Summer Olympics when three men crossed the finished line to win gold, silver and bronze medals. They were US athletes Tommie Smith (gold) and John Carlos (Bronze) and outsider Peter Norman from Australia (silver). What they did next challenged not only the world but authorities more generally.
It was the year that both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in the United States, the year that the US was racked by violence and the rise of the civil rights movement and when African American’s fought battles with authorities for equal rights. In Australia the fight was also on for the recognition of Aboriginal people who had previously been labelled as flora and fauna in the constitution. Just as there was in apartheid era South Africa, Aboriginal people were restricted from many places from retail stores to shops, from public transport and even flights. But, it was also a time when there was a forcible removal of children from their mothers, of adoption of Aboriginal children to white families and where wages were not paid, instead they were kept because of a belief that Aboriginal people could not possibly manage their own money.
So, against this back drop the three athletes decided to take action. After discussing what they could do as they took to the podium to receive their medals Australia’s Norman furnished both Smith and Carlos with a pair of black gloves. The reason why they had a glove on different hands was there was only one set. Smith and Norman decided to also remove their shoes as a sign that they were one with the poverty of their people and only wore black socks. All three wore Olympic Project for Human Rights badges although there were not enough to go around and Norman had to get a spare from another team - a member of the US Olympic rowing team. As writer Martin Flanagan has written:
"They asked Norman if he believed in human rights. He said he did. They asked him if he believed in God. Norman, who came from a Salvation Army background, said he believed strongly in God. We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat. He said, 'I'll stand with you'." Carlos said he expected to see fear in Norman's eyes. He didn't; "I saw love. On the way out to the medal ceremony, Norman saw the OPHR badge being worn by Paul Hoffman, a white member of the US Rowing Team, and asked him if he could wear it. It was Norman who suggested that Smith and Carlos share the black gloves used in their salute, after Carlos left his pair in the Olympic Village. This is the reason for Smith raising his right fist, while Carlos raised his left.”
It has been alleged by some that Norman was shunned by the Australian Olympic Committee and was vilified at home and, according to someacross social media his treatment was unfair. But, according to Mike Tancred, Media Director of the Australian Olympic Committee the truth is far more compelling than the conspiracy theories telling entrehub that: "When the incident happened at the 1968 Mexico Games, Peter Norman was not punished by the Australian Olympic Committee. He was cautioned by the Chef de Mission of our Team , Mr Julius Patching, that evening, and then given tickets to go and watch a hockey match." in response to repeated claims that he had been shunned ahead of the Munich games it is worth noting that respected sports journalist Ron Carter reported on the 27th of March 1972 that "until yesterday Victorian sprinter Peter Norman was in the Olympic Games team for Munich - but he probaby ran himself out of the team at the National Titles." he went on to say "Norman ran a shocker in the final of the 200 meters championship yesterday and struggled to finish only third."
Tancred goes on to tell EntreHub that: "In the lead up to the Sydney 2000 Olympics , Peter Norman was involved in numerous Olympic events in his home city of Melbourne. He announced several teams for the AOC in Melbourne and was on the stage congratulating athletes and he was very much acknowledged as an Olympian and we valued his contribution." and "As for not being invited to the Sydney Games. The AOC was not in a financial position to invite all Olympians to the Sydney Games. They were given special assistance to purchase tickets but financially it would have cost the AOC hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring Olympians from around the country to Sydney for the Games. The suggestion he was shunned is ridiculous. He was treated like any other Australian Olympian."
Norman would die on the 3rd of October 2006 in Melbourne at the age of only 64 and on the 9th of October the US Track and Field Federation proclaimed it to be Peter Norman day - paying tribute six years before Australia’s Federal Parliament would finally make a national apology to Norman. Andrew Leigh, an Australian Parliamentarian had this to say at the time: “The apparent treatment of Peter Norman was symbolic of the attitude of the late sixties and the early seventies, the view that sport and politics should not mix. In the early 1970s, a group of brave protesters took a stand against apartheid in South Africa, interrupting games played by white-only sporting teams. History has vindicated those anti-apartheid protesters and history has vindicated Peter Norman.”
The most poignant moment came at the funeral of Norman where, all of those years later, both John Carlos and Tommie Smith would be present not only to remember their old friend but to carry him to his last resting place.
There are of course a number of lessons we could all learn from not only the events of 1968 but in the years and decades that followed and of the treatment of all three men that, as Andrew Leigh has said, history has vindicated. The point is, of course, each of us struggles every day and sometimes against the odds whether it be in business, breaking the glass ceiling, equity in relationships, empowerment of women, recognition of young people the fight against bigotry and hate, racism and more. But, in that one moment and across the back drop of a time where black people were being treated as less than second class citizens in their own countries three men decided to stand up and say “no”. Often times we don’t do or say enough when we see things happening that we know are not right and yet years later we regret the things we never did or never said. The lesson for each of us is to stand up not just to stand out.
Norman was a very humble man to the end. in 2005 San Jose State University erected a statue in honor of the event but missing is Norman. The reason is that Norman requested the space be left empty so that visitors to the exhibit could stand in his place and feel what he felt.
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