The giant statue on the campus of the San Jose State University depicts the moment in 1968 when Tommie Smith and John Carlos confronted white America with an uncomfortable truth. Smith and Carlos had just won the gold and bronze medals in the 200m. On the podium, as the US anthem played, the two black athletes lowered their heads and raised black-gloved hands as a gesture of support for the civil rights movement.
In his autobiography, entitled simply ‘Salute’, Smith said it was a ’human rights salute’ not a ‘black power’ salute. Though the two Americans, both graduates of San Jose, were immediately expelled from the Olympic Village in 1968, the image has remained one of the most enduring symbols of black protest, rightly remembered and honoured on its 50th anniversary last week. “They (Smith and Carlos) have laid the foundation for the advancement of many others…and have done it gracefully and unapologetically,” Colin Kaepernick tweeted last week.
Kaepernick ignited his own controversy with his ‘take the knee’ protest against police brutality two years ago. The former San Francisco 49ers quarter-back has become the lucrative face of the Nike Corporation’s latest multi-million pound advertising campaign, but, in an echo of 1968, has yet to find another job with an NFL team. The uneasy relationship between sport, politics and race was reflected equally in the treatment of the figure on the second step of the podium in Mexico, the one for the silver medallist which has been left empty in the statue at San Jose but was occupied on the day by the Australian, Peter Norman.
Norman fully supported the protest after the 200m final and even suggested to the Americans that they wear a glove each because Carlos had forgotten to bring his own gloves. On the podium, Norman wore the badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights in support of his fellow athletes. Instead of being feted on his return to Australia, Norman was vilified, often mocked, by his own people and shunned by his own Olympic Association. “If we were getting beat up,” John Carlos said later, “Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.”
Controversially omitted from the Australian team for the Munich Games in 1972, despite repeatedly running the qualifying times, Norman was left off the AOC’s invitation list for the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. A Norman was honoured at the ceremony, but it was Greg Norman, the golfer, no relation. Peter Norman had to rely on an invitation from the US Track and Field Federation to attend his own Games.
The AOC have always denied any discrimination against their athlete, but it has only been in the last six years that the tide has begun to turn. On 11th October 2012, the Australian House of Representatives formally apologised for Norman’s treatment after Mexico, belatedly recognising his ‘powerful role in furthering racial equality’. But only this year was he awarded an Order of Merit by the AOC and honoured by its president, John Coates, ‘for a simple act, standing with those athletes, wearing their badge and telling them he supported them.’ A week in mid-October has been designated Peter Norman week and a special award named in his honour by Athletics Australia.
Norman’s life was far from straightforward after his retirement from the track in the mid-70s. An Achilles heel injury nearly cost him his leg and pitched him into a downward spiral of addiction and depression. Running had been his escape, in many ways his saviour, but now it had become his nightmare. A biography, co-written by his nephew and published this month, records the reaction of John Carlos when he first saw Norman run: “Who’s this little white guy?” he asked.
Carlos knew the answer well enough on the night of the Olympic final. A slight figure in comparison to the muscular Americans, Norman broke the Olympic record in the heats of the 200m and split the pair of them in the final, though he is out of shot in many of the photos at the finish. Norman’s Olympic record of 20.02 seconds was beaten by Carlos in the semi-final and by Smith, who ran 19.83 in the final but remains an Australian record 50 years on.
In a poignant closing of the circle, Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral in 2006 and both gave eulogies. “The salute” in Mexico 50 years ago brought white America face-to-face with the hypocrisy of lauding black athletes one minute and segregating them the next and the fact that the ‘little white guy’ was willing to stand up and be counted only added to the power of the tableau. The empty step on the podium of the statue in San Jose, left vacant on purpose so that the next generation of children, black and white, can become part of the image, is a fitting symbol of the forgotten hero of 1968.
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