Australian politics, society & culture

Peter Norman, Tommie Smith & John Carlos

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Short read500 words
 

When he first saw Peter Norman, John Carlos said, “Who’s this little white guy?”

Up until then – the semi-final of the 200 metres – the phys ed teacher, “seventh-generation Salvo” and sometime butcher from Melbourne’s northern suburbs hadn’t really registered on the radar of the American runner or his Harlem-born teammate, Tommie Smith, the favourite for the gold. But before long, the three men would find themselves linked together in one of the most potent images of the twentieth century.

It was Mexico City, 1968, and a turbulent year for the Olympic Games. Ten days before the opening ceremony, Mexican government special forces, the Olympia Battalion, machine-gunned crowds protesting against the extravagance of the games. Martin Luther King’s assassination had polarised the United States and some of the American athletes, including Carlos and Smith, had joined the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

Mexico City was Norman’s first run on an Olympic-standard track and the high altitude gave him an extra boost. In the final, he kept his surge for the last 40 metres. Carlos, seeing that Smith had it won, eased off slightly. Norman flew past and seized the silver.

Then things got even more interesting.

As the three runners readied themselves for the medal presentation, Carlos and Smith went over their plan to make a political gesture on the podium. They drew the little white guy into the conversation, letting him know their intentions. “I’ll stand with you,” Norman told them, and asked for one of the badges the Americans were wearing. They’d also planned to wear black gloves but Carlos had left his pair at the athletes’ village. Norman suggested they split Smith’s pair and wear one each on alternative hands.

The medals were handed out and the three turned toward the flags for the US national anthem. As his track rivals stood shoeless with arms upraised in the Black Power salute and the crowd fell silent, Norman didn’t move a muscle. He stared forward, their willing accomplice, an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge pinned over his heart.

The Americans were sent home to face media outrage and death threats. Norman got out of it with a rap over the knuckles, but the Australian Olympic bosses made sure he never ran for his country again, despite repeatedly qualifying for Munich. In 2000, they let him announce the table tennis team. He was effectively written out of Australian history. But not American. When he died of a heart attack after mowing the lawn in 2006, John Carlos and Tommie Smith were pallbearers at his funeral.