This is the most iconic sports photograph taken. Images of athletes making political statements still endure. In this iconic picture, we have two Africa-American sprinters, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, raising their gloved fists in a black power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Their gesture was powerful. They showed defiance against the oppression that was taking place in America at the time. The story of the two sprinters and how monumental their silent protest was has been soliloquized for years. What has been lost in this is the role of that white guy in the picture. His name is Peter Norman.
At that track event that morning, the 200 meter final, Tommie Smith won gold with a world-record of 19.83 seconds. Mr. Norman finished second with a time of 20.06 seconds. Carlos finished third. Norman’s time was not only his all-time personal best but an Australian record that still stands. After the race, the three athletes went to medal podiums for their medals. Smith and Carlos had previously already decided to make a statement on the podium. They were going to wear black gloves. However, Carlos left his at the Olympic Village. Mr. Norman was the one that told them that they should both wear Smith’s gloves instead but on alternate hands. Which is why Smith is seen raising his right fist, while Carlos raised his left. Mr. Norman had no way of making a protest of his own so he asked a member of the U.S. rowing team for his “Olympic Project for Human Rights” badge so that he could show that he supported Carlos and Smith.
The consequences were swift for Smith and Carlos as they were sent home. Norman, on the other hand, was never picked to run in the Olympics again. He had qualified for the 200 meters 13 times and 100 meters five times but the powers of Australian track and field decided against taking him to Munich. Norman would retire as soon as he heard that he’d been cut from the Munich team. He even wasn’t invited to the 2000 Sydney Olympics in any capacity. His own country had shunned him for standing with Carlos and Smith. Norman would not get an apology till after his death on October 3, 2006. In August of 2012, the Australian Parliament passed a posthumous apology.
Norman was a hero for his small but unwavering stand against racism. The biggest price that he paid was that his outstanding 200 meters final has been overshadowed by the Black Power salute. His run is still seen as one of the best unexpected individual performances by a sprinter.
Like a true hero, Mr. Norman had no grudges.
“It has been said that sharing my silver medal with that incident on the victory dais detracted from my performance,” Norman explains passionately in the bio-doc “Salute”
“On the contrary. I have to confess, I was rather proud to be part of it.”