July 2008

Arts & Letters

Stand & deliver

By Luke Davies
Matt Norman’s ‘Salute’

Early in Matt Norman's documentary about the controversy surrounding the Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics - and in particular, the involvement of the Australian silver medallist Peter Norman in that controversy - there is a shot of the stadium scoreboard at the opening ceremony, on which has been projected in giant letters a quote from Baron de Coubertin, the founder, in the 1890s, of the International Olympic Committee. "The important thing in the Olympic Games," it reads, "is not winning but taking part. The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well."

This kind of desk-calendar pap never goes away; it just gets recycled in more, or less, sophisticated ways. And now, in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, we can expect to see it with a Chinese twist. More honest, and certainly more refreshing, would be the Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi's famous quote from the 1960s, "Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing." Though not losing counts for a lot, too. In one humorous anecdote in this documentary, Peter Norman tells of how Australian athletes are given three rules: don't bring any disgrace on the team; don't come last, ever; and don't, under any circumstances, lose to a Pom.

There is a certain commodified absurdity to the whole Olympic charade of international goodwill and physical excellence: in the argument between the chicken of pure athleticism and the egg of syndicated television rights, associated advertising revenue and the titanic clashes of the gods Nike and Adidas, the egg always comes first. Nostalgists may well believe that 2000 was Sydney's golden moment; all I remember is six months of anxiety that they would leave that ridiculously disproportionate beach-volleyball stadium (beach volleyball is an Olympic sport?) forever on Bondi Beach. Sydney felt like the world's largest dysfunctional family back then: Smile for the neighbours and visitors; don't let them know. 2000 was also the year that traffic gridlock arrived, never to leave again. I have always imagined that the Olympics, in each of their local, four-yearly embodiments, make a lot of money for a small number of people; ruin the city's infrastructure with a kind of invisible time-delay system; and are ultimately, particularly for the glamour events of swimming and athletics, about the question of which drug labs can design the most undetectable - for now - range of performance ‘aids'. But I might be a cynic.

Probably the biggest, most scandalous story of the Sydney Olympics was the one rendered almost invisible: the dismissal, in June 2000, only three months before the games began, of Dr Wade Exum, the US Olympic Committee's Director of Drug Control Administration, who had protested against what he claimed were attempts to sabotage his anti-drug efforts. With barely contained anger, Exum accused the American program of being about "controlled doping" rather than "doping control". "I consider myself," he said, "to be not so much a whistleblower as someone who's seeking to expose some wrongdoing." When the head of a body that purports to fearlessly seek out drug cheats resigns and takes that body to court because it is doing the opposite of what it should be doing, and when even the broadsheets are barely touching the story, then it is time to hang our heads in shame. At that point we really should have abandoned all pretence and pursued a policy of absolute transparency in the quest for excellence: all athletes should be rigorously tested, only so that we might know which pharmaceutical companies to send the medals to. In the event of an athlete winning an event and testing negative, they should be feted to within an inch of their life and receive huge fees for endorsing breakfast cereals and energy bars. If, in six or ten years' time, it comes to light that they were doped to the eyeballs on now-detectable performance-enhancing substances, they should give the money back and the use of medieval stocks should be resumed. That, or public spankings.

Salute (released on 24 July), though, hearkens back to a more innocent time: 1968, when the world was fired with a revolutionary fervour (apparently since tamped down somewhat). Parisian students were going wild. Martin Luther King was assassinated on 4 April and Robert Kennedy on 5 June. Race riots swept across America. And dope testing was introduced for the first time in the Olympic Games. At the time, Mexico was not a country that had an utterly appalling human-rights record, and yet, in the months leading up to the Olympics, in response to protests regarding the games' expense in relation to the country's endemic poverty, the military killed as many as 2000 protestors and activists. The mere fact of China's having secured the imminent games, given its attitude to democratic fair play (mobile execution vans, anybody?), can surely only mean that in the IOC's selection process, there must be no real process whatsoever, beyond the mysterious logistics of deep hypocrisy. Let's give them the games; then they'll promise they'll be a better country in the future.

Recently, on a training run in Belgium, the cyclist Cadel Evans, an Australian Olympic hopeful, was spotted wearing a Free Tibet T-shirt beneath his tracksuit top. Within days a nervous IOC had clarified its Olympic charter, though the word ‘clarified' needs to be used advisedly. Athletes are "free to express their opinions" but "such conduct must also, of course, comply with the laws of the host state." Feel free to speak your mind; just don't express any opinions about those pesky little human-rights issues. The IOC has now officially stated that athletes who break out their Free Tibet T-shirts or raise their fists in a show of solidarity on the medal stand will be breaking the rules, though the punishment now, as in 1968, has not been clearly stated. "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas." In such circumstances, small stories become big ones. Veerle Dejaeghere, a Belgian steeplechaser without a hope of winning a gold medal, was recently contemplating the possibility of wearing a Free Tibet T-shirt. Contemplating the possibility: she wasn't, like Evans, actually wearing one. And yet that was enough of a story to make the International Herald Tribune. Let the fun and games begin.

Peter Norman was 26 years old in 1968. He grew up in a working-class suburb of Melbourne, in a strict Salvation Army household, and discovered he had the makings of a good sprinter when, as a high-jumper for the Collingwood Harriers, he was called in to replace someone on the 4x100 relay team. His Mexico City silver-medal time for the 200-metre sprint would have won him gold at the Sydney Olympics; 40 years later, it is still the fastest Australian time for the event. None of that is what makes this story. Norman was the white guy in one of the most famous images of the twentieth century: two African-American athletes, the gold-medal winner Tommie Smith and the bronze-medal winner John Carlos, stand on the dais, their arms held high in the black-gloved, clenched-fist Black Power salute, while Norman stands to one side, head bowed like them, and wearing, like them, an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, which in a sense was Mexico City's version of Free Tibet. It was an immensely contentious moment.

Originally, given the incendiary climate and civil unrest back home, America's black athletes had threatened to boycott the games. ("What would have happened if that boycott had gone ahead?" asks Norman mischievously. "Well, for a start, I'd have been a gold medallist.") Instead, they decided that individual competitors could express themselves any way they saw fit. Until the 200-metre sprint, nobody had done anything to cause consternation. (Ridiculous rumours floated about: snipers in the stadium, it was said, would take out any athlete who breached the decorum of the games.) The footage of the night is fascinating: the men climb onto the stand; Norman raises his arm high - not a Black Power salute, just a joyous wave to the crowd - while Smith and Carlos are more sombre. All three lean down, one after the other, to receive their medallions around their necks. They turn in unison to face their flags. Then Smith and Carlos raise their arms in the salute. They bow their heads, while a delighted Norman looks up into the stadium, taking it all in. Apparently, at this point the person singing the American national anthem faded out, mid-verse. "You could hear the pin falling through the air before it dropped."

The fallout was immediate. The image was shown around the world, and the salute was taken to be a militant statement. Norman says in this film that he viewed the fingers coming together in a fist as a symbol of strength and unity, not a threat. This may be a touch disingenuous: after all, it seems that some of the bravado of the act was in its association with Black Power, and Black Panther, militancy. In any case, Smith and Carlos were sent home the next day. They had "despoiled the Olympic dais", and were banned for life from participating in the games. Smith, the holder of 11 world records, found work washing cars: no endorsement deals for him. But to Peter Norman, there had never been anything sacrilegious or controversial in the athletes' gestures; it was merely "the opportunity for two heroic young men to stand there and state to the world that things weren't right: that is the essence of what the protest is about." Norman, a civil-rights sympathiser, would come to understand the cost of public displays of principle. "They sacrificed what could have been for them a moment of personal glory that they'd worked very hard to attain."

He himself suffered consequences; and we have to imagine these were merely for having worn the human-rights badge. In 1972, in the lead-up to the Munich Games, Norman qualified for the 200 metres 13 times and for the 100 metres five times, and was number five in the world. And yet, in '72, for the first and only time, Australia was not represented by any sprinters at the Olympics. If they had taken any, they would have had to take Norman, "but they'd rather [have left] me home than have me over there." If this was indeed the case, it reflects a testy brittleness in Australian officialdom. For his part, John Carlos, who comes over as somewhat self-important in the 1968 footage, recognised much later what Norman had done. "Peter didn't have to take that button. Peter was not from the United States. Peter was not a black man. Peter didn't feel what I felt. But he was a man that committed."

Norman, who died in 2006, is very personable and humble in the interviews, and appears to have taken it all in his stride. He is laconic and funny, too. "I took off like a scalded cat," he says, relating his tactic in one race. "I got sick to death of hearing your anthem," he deadpans when giving a talk to a crowd of Americans, who take a second to register the shock of the irreverence before laughing. "You have this one, John; I'll have the next," he quipped to Carlos after coming second to him in the last heat before the 200-metre final.

Salute was made by Peter Norman's nephew Matt. It's a great story, though not a great documentary; perhaps he was too close to the subject matter. It might have been more dynamic as a television hour. There's a slightly hokey American voiceover, possibly a concession to a potential North American release. A naff score doesn't help - nor does Carlos's habit of wearing black sunglasses throughout the interviews - and the story sags a little in the build-up. Archival footage of the Aboriginal-rights movement in the '60s implies that the young Norman was politicised and aware, but it is more likely that this son of a suburban butcher had little sense of the storm he was sprinting into.

Yet the film nicely captures a sense of the world at that crossroads, in the late '60s, between innocence and experience. Sports were changing and becoming corporatised. In preparation for Mexico City, the Americans set up an altitude training camp at Lake Tahoe, 8000 feet above sea level. In Australia, where no such heights exist, it was business as usual: kicking about on the oval a bit. When the Australian athletes arrived in Mexico City, they could barely climb four flights of stairs. They had to adjust quickly. Norman climbed onto the dais and into a historical moment; in the years that followed, he adjusted with an understated dignity.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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