In A Nutshell
Everyone has seen the picture of Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos defiantly raising their fists on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics to celebrate black power. The act was captured in what became one of the most famous photos of the 20th century. Of course, there was a third guy on the medal stand, too: a white man named Peter Norman. What most people probably don’t realize was that he actually helped plan the black power salute.
The Whole Bushel
At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, United States runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos became icons in the civil rights movement in America when they defiantly raised their fists, clad in black gloves, to signify black power. They were two of the top runners in the world and had just taken home the gold and bronze medals.
Of course, there was also a third man in the picture, a white guy who kind of looks like he’s not quite sure what to do in that situation. That guy was Australian Peter Norman, and not only did he fully support the gesture, but he actually helped plan it with Smith and Carlos. You know those black gloves? It was Norman who suggested they wear those. Because there was only one pair for the two of them, that’s why one man has his right fist raised, and the other has his left.
Naturally, there is more to the story than just suggesting they wear gloves in their act of social defiance. If you look closely at Norman’s chest you can see he is wearing a small badge in support of the “Olympic Project for Human Rights.” Norman was a full-fledged activist, and amazingly, his participation in this entire gesture staged by Smith and Carlos pretty much ended his career as a runner, despite the fact that he was arguably the finest runner Australia had ever produced.
He received a hush-hush sanction back home in Australia and never returned to the Olympics despite the fact that the run with which he won that silver medal remains an Australian record. This was all because, while the United States was at the forefront of the civil rights movement around the world thanks to people like Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, racial inequality was far from limited to America.
In Australia, there was a “White Australia” policy which, in part, included the practice of taking newborn Aboriginals away from their parents and instead giving them to new white “parents” to be raised instead. This practice actually existed into the 1970s, amazingly. So when Norman made his decision to stand up for equal human rights on that grand stage, he was really making just as big a statement as Smith and Carlos. Unfortunately for him, while they became something of folk heroes back home, Norman was more or less ostracized by his home nation.
Even 32 years later when the Olympics were hosted in Sydney, Norman was noticeably absent from the festivities, having not been invited to participate, the grudge still being held for his actions. Norman died in 2006 before most people really ever learned of his role or what had “unofficially” been done to him by the Australian Olympic Committee, but to put into perspective just how large a role he had played, both Smith and Carlos gave eulogies at his funeral.