For the most part, I have only a passing interest in sports. During my years in Kenya and later in the UK, I was interested in cricket but that faded over the years after I moved to the US. However, I have maintained a sustained interest in the Olympics – an interest that commenced with the Melbourne games in 1956 when I lived in Kenya. It was my mother who got me interested – she, too had only a passing interest in most sports except when it came to the Olympics. I recall talking to her about Roger Bannister breaking the four minute barrier in the mile for the first time in history! It was a momentous event at the time, even though it occurred in 1954 before the Melbourne Olympics.
Over the years there have been many memorable moments, athletes, performances and incidents ranging from Emil Zatopek’s incredible performance in the 1952 Olympics, Abebe Bikila’s winning the marathon in bare feet, Jim Thorpe winning the decathlon and pentathlon in 1912, Nadia Comenici’s incredible gymnastic performance in Montreal, Alberto Juantarena winning the gold medal in both the 400 meters and 800 meters in the 1976 Olympics – a feat that has never been achieved either before or since, the unforgettable performance by Florence Griffith-Joyner whose athleticism and fashion sense were a major attraction at Seoul, the formidable performances by Michael Phelps in the 2008 Olympics when he won eight gold medals in swimming events breaking the record attained by Mark Spitz at Munich in 1972 and the almost super-human running in the sprints by Usain Bolt in 2008 and more recently in London and of, course, the legendary victories by Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics in 1936! There was also the massacre of the Israeli athletes by Black September terrorists in 1972.
But the incident at the Olympics that is for me one of the most memorable was not an athletic feat but a protest that occurred during the 1968 Olympics at Mexico City. Tommie Smith from the US won the gold medal in the 200 meters and broke the 20 second barrier for the first time in history.
It was at the height of the civil rights movement and during the medal ceremony as the US national anthem was being played, Tommie Smith and John Carlos (also from the US and who won the bronze medal) each raised a gloved hand in what was widely viewed as a black power salute although Smith denies it as having racial connotations! It was a gesture that caused tremendous controversy at the time. Both Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Olympic village at the insistence of Avery Brundage – an American who was the head of the IOC – after the American contingent were warned that if Smith and Carlos did not leave the entire American contingent would be expelled. Brundage who was viewed by some as a racist and anti-Semitic charged that Smith and Carlos politicized the games. When he was asked about the Nazi salute by German athletes during the Berlin Olympics he rationalized its use as being appropriate since it was a national salute as opposed to a personal protest. Yet Brundage was opposed to excluding South Africa from the Olympics because of its apartheid policies.
Smith and Carlos’ action has remained a symbolic moment in the history of the civil rights movement.
There were repercussions including death threats against Smith, Carlos and their families. A then young sportswriter named Brent Musberger called them “Black-skinned storm troopers.” An article by David Zirin said:
“Smith and Carlos wanted South Africa and Rhodesia banned from the 1968 games because of their apartheid politics. They demanded more black coaches in sports. They sought to hold Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, accountable for what many black athletes thought to be policies of barely concealed racism. They wanted Muhammad Ali to have his heavyweight boxing title restored after it was stripped because of the Champ’s refusal to fight in Vietnam.”
What is not generally known is that the winner of the silver medal in the event – an Australian, Peter Norman – donned an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the podium in support of their protest and in so doing ended up facing severe reprisals in Australia. It was Norman who suggested that Smith and Carlos share the black gloves used in their salute, after Carlos left his gloves in the Olympic Village. This is the reason for Tommie Smith raising his right fist, while John Carlos raised his left. Australia’s Olympic authorities reprimanded Norman and the Australian media ostracised him. He was also banned from competition for two years on his return. Despite Norman running qualifying times for the 100m five times and the 200m 13 times during 1971/72 he was not included in the Australian contingent in the 1972 Olympics.
Norman died of a heart attack in 2006 at the age of 64. US Track and Field Federation proclaimed the date of his funeral, as “Peter Norman Day”. Smith and Carlos gave eulogies and were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral. At his funeral in 2006, Carlos said:
“We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat. He said, ‘I’ll stand with you’. I expected to see fear, but there was none. I saw love. Peter never flinched (on the dais). He never turned his eyes, he never turned his head. He never said so much as ‘ouch’. Not every young white individual would have the gumption, the nerve, the backbone, to stand there. Go and tell your kids the story of Peter Norman.”
Tommie Smith in a recent interview had the following comments about the discussion that preceded their actions on the podium:
“Well our conversation was long and mighty. In terms of Peter Norman, he expressed verbally his idea of human rights. When he got on the victory stand he was wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights button symbolizing his belief in human rights. Not symbolizing his belief in black rights in this country, but in human rights, which included the black rights. Tommie Smith and John Carlos had the same button on, therefore that tied him with the belief in human rights. Now, this man ran a great race. He ran a race of authority, especially the last six meters, to become a silver medalist. When he got back to his country, which also had problems with blackness, especially with the aborigine congregation, he was not received very well. I think he was vilified because he stood on the victory stand with a button on. There was nothing that he could do to make the country understand that he was not guilty.”
Australia was a very different country in 1972 than it is today. In 1972, the “White Australia Policy” that severely restricted non-white immigrants was still in effect – it ended the following year as official policy.
There has been a recent move to issue a long overdue posthumous apology to Norman by the Australian government for the treatment that was meted out to him by his country. It has taken 48 years for the Australian government to consider this action but if all goes according to plan the issuance of an apology will be debated next week in the Australian parliament and is expected to pass. The following is the motion that is to be debated:
“That this House; Recognises the extraordinary athletic achievements of the late Peter Norman, who won the silver medal in the 200 metres sprint running at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, in a time of 20.06 seconds, which still stands as the Australian record;
Acknowledges the bravery of Peter Norman in donning an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the podium, in solidarity with African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave the black power salute;
Apologises to Peter Norman for the wrong done by Australia in failing to send him to the 1972 Munich Olympics, despite repeatedly qualifying; and Belatedly recognises the powerful role that Peter Norman played in furthering racial equality.”
If this passes a great injustice will have been corrected even if belatedly.
Tags: abebe bikila, Apology by Australian Government to Peter Norman, emil zatopek, florence griffith joyner, massacre of israeli athletes at Munich, michael phelps, nadia comenici, protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at 1968 Olympics, roger bannister breaks four minute barrier, Smith and Carlos pall-bearers at Norman's funeral, tommie smith, Usain Bolt