8th Jul 2012 4:59pm | By Alasdair Morton
With the Olympics upon us, an Australian hero from Games past is remembered
“It’s not about race, it’s about the human race,” filmmaker Matt Norman (above left) says of his documentary Salute, about the black power salute given by US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the 200m podium at the Mexico 1968 Olympics, and particularly his silver-medal-winning uncle Peter Norman’s role in the political protest.
With London 2012 around the corner, and issues of race and nationality high on the agenda after the recent European Football Championships and the media-furore over ‘plastic Brits’ competing under the Team GB banner at this month’s games, there’s no finer time for Norman’s film.
Indeed, the events portrayed make the 40-year gap between then and now seem awfully small, the progress achieved falling short of where we should be.
Back in 1968, the civil rights movement was in full flow, Martin Luther King Jr had been assassinated in April of that year, Mexico City had seen 200 students and protestors killed by Mexican militia and there had been a proposed boycott of the 19th Summer Games by black nations – although this was not to materialise.
Standing on the dais for the men’s 200m were Californian gold medallist Tommie Smith and Harlem-born John Carlos, with Aussie Peter Norman taking the silver medalist’s glory. Smith and Carlos, though, had plans, ones that would rock the world, the sport, and their lives for evermore.
As the US national anthem rang out through the stadium Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and stood motionless, with an arm each held aloft, one hand each adorned with a black glove in a Black Power salute.
Norman stood proud, too. He was not just ‘the white guy’ in the middle, but an active participant in the protest, himself adorned with an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge to show unity, and equally as aware was he of the danger his actions would put him in.
“A lot of people think ‘Yeah, he stood there and wore a badge, but it wasn’t a badge, it was a black badge. He was supporting American and Australian black civil rights, and for a white guy to do that in this country was dangerous,” Matt Norman says of his uncle’s actions.
“You have to think about how far we have come since 1968, though, and I don’t think we have come that far.
We still have racial issues in the UK and Australia, and it wasn’t that long ago that we had the White Australia policy and the stolen generation. When you think that Aboriginal people were only allowed the vote in 1970, it is quite incredible.”
In 1968, the aftermath of the trio’s actions echoed around the world. Nazi-sympathising IOC president Avery Brundage wanted to see their medals rescinded, and the media was in uproar for, supposedly, the breaking of the Olympics’ cardinal ‘no politics’ policy.
Peter, especially, faced a fallout that he could not, or perhaps at least did not, envisage.
“He was always proud of what he did. He knew he was going to be reprimanded as it was a protest at an Olympic Games,” Matt says.
“It made life hard for Tommie and John, but Peter got a slap on the wrist in comparison. The real damage, though, was when he came home.”