When athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos performed the Black Power salute during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, they sent out a powerful message that resounded around the world. But there was another man standing with them that day. This is the story of Peter Norman.
Smith and Carlos’ raised-fist gesture while on the podium after winning medals in the 200-meters final was a protest against the ill treatment of African Americans in the United States. The Civil Rights Act was just four years old at the time.
Born on June 5, 1942, Norman grew up in Coburg near Melbourne, Australia. His family was heavily involved with the Salvation Army. And despite starting off his working life as an apprentice butcher, Norman was soon pursuing a career in athletics.
As well as featuring in numerous national competitions, Norman competed in the 1962 and 1966 Commonwealth Games. But he made his appearance on a larger stage when he was selected to represent Australia in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico.
He didn’t disappoint, either, shocking everyone by coming second in the 200-meters final. But his life-changing moment came when he stepped on to the podium with Carlos and Smith. He was wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity with the American pair.
As a critic of his home country’s racist White Australia Policy, Norman was very supportive of the American athletes’ cause. It was Norman, too, who suggested that the athletes share a pair of gloves, with Carlos having left his in the Olympic Village.
“I couldn’t see what was happening,” Norman said in a later interview. “I had known they had gone through with their plans when a voice in the crowd sang the American anthem but then faded to nothing. The stadium went quiet.”
On his return to Australia, Norman was torn apart by the media and punished by the country’s Olympic body because of his donning of the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge. But in spite of him being offered a pardon on the condition that he denounce his support for the Americans, Norman never went back on his decision.
The athletics community in Australia continued to persecute him, too. Despite making the qualifying times for the 200 meters on 13 occasions, Norman wasn’t selected to compete at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. It was a major blow for the athlete, who later decided to quit competing professionally.
Norman and his family were made to feel like outcasts. And, after flitting between jobs, he sustained an injury that eventually became gangrenous. It was a catalyst for Norman’s life falling apart around him.
The injury, combined with his divorce, plunged Norman into depression, alcoholism and prescription-drug addiction. He was even known to use his Olympic medal as a door stop. And all because he stood by his principles.
As Norman grew older, he still held on to the hope that he would be recognized by Australia at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. But it wasn’t to be. He was the only Australian medal-winning Olympian not given the opportunity to carry out a VIP lap of honor.
Norman’s nephew Matt brought his uncle, Carlos and Smith together for the first time in 2004 for the production of a documentary called Salute. But, sadly, Norman wouldn’t live long enough to see the public’s reaction to it.
Tragically, on October 9, 2006, Peter Norman died from a sudden heart attack. Both Carlos and Smith were pallbearers at the Olympian’s funeral. He was 64 years old and had still not yet received an official apology.
That moment would at long last come in 2012 when the Australian Parliament began debating the case for a posthumous apology. The official statement finally came in October of that year, six years after Norman’s death.
It was a pretty unreserved apology, too. “[The Australian government] apologizes to Peter Norman for the treatment he received upon his return to Australia, and the failure to fully recognize his inspirational role before his untimely death in 2006,” it stated.
However, even then, the Australian Olympic Committee kicked up a fuss. It disputed the claim that Norman was forced to pay a dear price for standing by his fellow athletes during the controversial medal ceremony.
Meanwhile, in the years that followed the famous podium moment, Carlos and Smith were honored with a statue erected at San Jose State University, California. Next to the two American athletes is an empty space where Norman should be. This is the spot on which modern Americans are themselves given the chance to take a stand.
After the release of Salute, Australian film critic Matt Norman wrote, “He was a devout Christian, raised in the Salvation Army [and] believed passionately in equality for all, regardless of color, creed or religion, the Olympic code.” It’s a fitting tribute.
And Carlos has paid his own tribute to Norman. “There’s no-one in the nation of Australia that should be honored, recognized, appreciated more than Peter Norman for his humanitarian concerns, his character, his strength and his willingness to be a sacrificial lamb for justice,” he said in a 2012 interview.