LONDON (Reuters) - For more years than should have been necessary, Australian sprinter Peter Norman has been the answer to a sports quiz question.
Even hardcore track fans struggle to name the third man in the iconic photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the victory podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics with heads bowed and one black-gloved fist raised.
A film by Norman’s nephew Matt, which has been several years in the gestation, seeks to redress this historic oversight.
“Salute”, available on DVD/Download 30 July, tells the story of Norman’s early life and shows Australia was far from immune from the turmoil of the 1960s. Protesters demonstrated on behalf of the oppressed aboriginal people and there was fierce opposition to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war.
Norman, still the finest sprinter produced in the southern hemisphere, wore a badge in support of the two black Americans and their cause, the Olympic Project for Human Rights, at the victory ceremony for the 200 metres.
How a young man from a Melbourne white working class background came to support Smith and Carlos in their silent protest is related by “Salute”. Smith elaborated on the events leading to an unprecedented protest which stunned the world during the course of an interview with Reuters in a recent visit to London.
Smith, who smashed the world record en route to taking the gold medal ahead of Norman and Carlos, said the trio had been waiting underneath the stands for the victory ceremony, a room he said was known as “the dungeon”.
”I remember the conversation that John had with Peter,“ he said. ”And the question from John to Peter was ‘do you believe in human rights?’
”And Peter said, in the Australian manner, ‘yeah, I believe in human rights’. John said ‘if you had a button would you wear it’ and he said ‘yeah, I’d wear it.
”I had only one button, Carlos had a button, as we were coming out of the dungeon there was a overhang and one of the rowers from Harvard, who backed the human rights issue, also had a button.
”I don’t know how John got the button. I was in front of John coming out, and the next thing I knew he was pinning it on Peter. And I said, ‘oh God, no’. I said ‘Peter are you going to wear it’ and he said ‘yeah, why not?
”In Australia they had their problem with the aboriginal people, their black people and I knew the history behind that. And he was going to wear a button, on a political victory stand? With two of the most political athletes in the history of the world?
“Yeah, sure there was going to be a problem. But John Carlos and Tommie Smith had each other. Peter had nobody to go back home with. So when he got back home he received loads of problems.”
Smith and Carlos not only outraged the grandees of the International Olympic Committee, who ordered their immediate expulsion from Mexico City. They were treated as pariahs in the United States where Smith’s marriage broke down, Carlos’ wife committed suicide and both struggled for years to make a living.
The Australian sporting authorities were no more forgiving. Norman, who died in 2006, was not selected for the 1972 Munich Olympics and never ran for his country again. He suffered from depression, became addicted to pain killers and, in a final indignity, was not asked to play any part in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
”Physically he was good but socially he was almost abandoned,“ Smith lamented. ”Of course he had the heart problems anyway and he had the massive heart attack and I believe because of the social problems the heart attack was imminent. He died after a massive heart attack.
“It’s tough to see a person like that, who has so much love for the human race and mankind, put on the backburner to fade away. That’s what I perceived.”
“Salute” is not a story of unrelieved misery. Norman, whose time 20.06 set in the thin air of Mexico City still stands as the Australian record, was an immensely talented sprinter who flourished while running on synthetic tracks for the first time in Mexico.
“He might have been behind the person 10 metres from the finish but if you didn’t continue your power in to the finish he was going to pass you,” Smith said. “John Carlos knew that. And John Carlos knew that because he went past John Carlos in the last three or four strides.”
The trio came from markedly different backgrounds, including Smith who was a member of a sharecropping family of 12 in Texas, and Carlos who was brought up in Harlem. The bond formed by the events of 1968 grew stronger over the years before Norman’s death.
”It was better than ever,“ Smith recalled. ”A couple of times after Mexico City, Peter and I and John were together.
”But there was not enough time to talk to Peter on an one-on-one basis enough because he died long before we had a chance to do this.
”And he lived in Australia, so visiting him physically or talking to him on a one-to-one basis was quite difficult. But we did quite a lot of talking in 2000 where Salute was born, in Sacramento, California.
”In his own right he was one of the greatest athletes in the world. I know for a fact in his own right he was one of the greatest men I have ever met.
“Destiny? I believe it was, I didn’t want to do it (the protest). There are lot of things needing doing that you really don’t want to do but it’s the right thing to do.”
Editing by Justin Palmer