Peter Norman is the greatest Australian sprinter in history. He is also a silent hero.
In October 1968, Norman won the Olympic silver medal in the 200-meter dash, finishing between Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Nearly five decades later, his time of 20.06 is still the fastest 200m ever run by an Australian. Norman was Australia’s national champion at 200m for five straight years, beginning in 1966, and set a new Olympic record during the heats of the 1968 Mexico City Games. A relative unknown outside his homeland, the white Aussie came to Mexico City in 1968 as merely an Olympian and left as a participant in one of the most polarizing moments in American civil rights history: the 1968 Olympics Black Power Salute.
Peter George Norman was born into a working class family in Melbourne June 15, 1942. An apprentice butcher, he trained with the East Melbourne Harriers track club. After three consecutive national titles at 200 meters, he qualified for Australia’s 1968 Olympic team. Norman was 26 years old when he arrived in Mexico City. It was the first time the 5’10”, 160-pound sprinter had ever run on an Olympic-standard track, and he thrived in the thin air of Mexico’s capital city.
The world was in turmoil in 1968. The war was raging in Vietnam, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated within two months of each other, and the American Civil Rights Movement was in full force. In Australia, prejudicial laws against its indigenous aboriginal population were in place, and the White Australian policy effectively barred people of non-European descent from immigrating to the country. In Mexico City, hundreds of protesting students were massacred in the run-up to the Olympic Games, and the Mexican government covered up their deaths to the world. It was against this backdrop that three men met in the men’s 200 meters at the Olympics.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos were the two fastest 200-meter sprinters in the world coming into the 1968 Olympic Games. Smith had held the world record for two years, until Carlos lowered it at the Olympic Trials in June. The Americans were heavily favored to sweep the 200, which promised to be fast, as the Olympic record fell five times in the 13 qualifying heats that preceded it. One of those records went to Peter Norman, a little-known Australian who ran 20.17 in the sixth heat. It set up the fastest 200m in history. Smith, who had injured himself in the semi-final, went out conservatively before blazing the second half of the race to win in a world-record time of 19.83. Norman finished second, overtaking Carlos, who claimed bronze, at the finish. Norman’s time of 20.06 remains the Australian record.
Following the race, Smith and Carlos discussed – in front of Norman – their plan for the medal ceremony. They would receive their medals shoeless, but wear black socks to represent black poverty. Smith would wear a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride. Carlos would have his tracksuit top unzipped to show solidarity with blue collar workers. Most importantly, they would bow their heads and raise black-gloved right hands as a “human rights salute.” On the way to the medal ceremony, Carlos discovered he had left his gloves in the Olympic Village, and Norman suggested he wear Smith’s left-handed glove. As they approached the stand, Norman saw Paul Hoffman, a white member of the U.S. rowing team, wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge and asked to borrow it. Established a year earlier by Smith, Carlos and others, the OPHR aimed to protest racial injustice. All three athletes wore the badges on the podium. During the playing of The Star Spangled Banner, Smith and Carlos stood defiantly, with heads bowed and fists raised, while Norman – an OPHR badge on his left breast — stood with hands by his side. It was an act that scandalized the Olympics while producing one of the most iconic sports photo in history.
It also changed lives forever. Asked about his support by the world’s press, Norman said he opposed his government’s White Australia policy.
In the aftermath of the Olympics, Smith and Carlos were sent home in disgrace and banished from the Olympics for life. Both were subjected to abuse and death threats by white society but were treated as heroes within the black community. History has been kind to them. Peter Norman was less fortunate. Australian authorities reprimanded him and the Aussie media ostracized him. Norman was a pariah. The OPHR badge effectively ended his career. “As soon as he got home he was hated,” said his nephew. Despite Norman posting qualifying times in both the 100m and 200m during the 1972 Australian Olympic Trials, Australia did not send Norman, or any other sprinters, to the Munich Games. It marked the first-ever modern Olympics where no Aussie sprinters participated. Between 1972 and 1976, Norman ran 13 Olympic qualifying times for the 200m and five for the 100m, yet Australia opted to leave him home rather than send him to the Olympic Games.
“He paid the price,” recalled Tommie Smith. “This was Peter Norman’s stand for human rights, not Peter Norman helping Tommie Smith and John Carlos out.” The 20.06 he ran in Mexico City would have won gold in 1972, 1976 and 2000. “He just happened to be a white guy, an Australian white guy, between two black guys on the victory stand believing in the same thing,” Smith explained.
The greatest sprinter in Australian history was not invited to participate in the 2000 Sydney Olympics in any capacity. Overlooked completely by the Australian organizing authorities in the run-up to the Sydney Games, the Americans caught wind of the omission and invited Norman to take part in the event as part of the U.S. team. At a birthday party for American sprinter Michael Johnson [who days later would win gold in the 400 meters], Normanwas greeted warmly by Johnson, who told the Aussie he was one of his heroes. On October 17, 2003 –35 years and one day after the 1968 200 meter Olympic final — Norman was invited to deliver a speech at San Jose State University – alma mater of Smith and Carlos – during a ceremony unveiling a statue commemorating the 1968 Olympic protest. Three years later, Mr. Norman died of a heart attack in Melbourne. He was 64. The U.S. Track & Field Federation proclaimed October 9, 2006, the date of his funeral, as “PeterNorman Day.” Both Smith and Carlos gave eulogies and were pallbearers at their friend’s funeral.
In 2008, Paramount Pictures released Salute, a documentary detailing the story behind the Olympic protest. The film was directed and produced by Matt Norman, Peter’s nephew, and won several awards, including Best Documentary at the 2008 Sydney Film Festival.
Tomorrow marks the 66th anniversary of the first IAAF-ratified men’s 200 meters world record of 20.6, run by Seton Hall’s Andy Stanfield at a meet in Philadelphia in 1951.