The forgotten man: The story of Peter Norman, the silver medalist on the podium with Tommie Smith and John Carlos

·14-min read

The blank stares used to gnaw at Matt Norman.

The Australian filmmaker struggled to comprehend why so few of his countrymen knew his uncle’s name or were aware of his acts of heroism.

To Matt, his uncle was the forgotten figure from one of the most iconic sports photos ever taken. Peter Norman is the man sharing the medal podium with Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics when they raised their black-gloved fists to the sky to protest racial inequality as "The Star-Spangled Banner" played.

While Smith and Carlos risked their lives and careers to shine a spotlight on the discrimination that Black Americans faced, the elder Norman also invited controversy by donning a badge on the medal stand in support of their cause. Peter returned home to Melbourne a pariah despite securing a silver medal in the 200 meters and clocking an Australian record that still stands 52 years later.

It frustrated Peter’s nephew that the emotionally charged debate over the protest swallowed up any attention his uncle’s achievement would have received. It stung even more that Peter didn’t get the credit he deserved for his principled stand even after Australia’s views on race began to change for the better.

“I used to say my uncle was once the fastest white guy in the world or that he was the third guy in the Black power protest photo, but no one knew who I was talking about,” Matt Norman told Yahoo Sports. “Everyone knew the image, but they didn’t know he was an Australian, let alone his name.”

Not long before his uncle’s October 2006 death at age 64, Matt approached Peter with an idea to bring attention to his story. Matt asked permission to interview Peter on camera and to make a film about his life.

“Why would you?” Peter asked incredulously.

“Because no one knows your story,” his nephew responded.

When Peter protested that he was just a footnote in the story of Smith and Carlos, his nephew held his ground. For Matt, this was his chance to honor his beloved uncle and to finally right a lingering wrong.

Australian Peter Norman, the silver medalist in the 200-meter run at the 1968 Olympic Games, supported Tommie Smith and John Carlos in their protest against unfair treatment of blacks in the United States. (Getty Images)
Australian Peter Norman, the silver medalist in the 200-meter run at the 1968 Olympic Games, supported Tommie Smith and John Carlos in their protest against unfair treatment of blacks in the United States. (Getty Images)

Who is Peter Norman?

To understand why Black Americans fighting for equal rights resonated with a white physical education teacher from Melbourne, it’s important to understand how Peter Norman was raised. He hailed from a country with its own history of racial tension but from a family who taught him that all people were equal.

Norman grew up in a working-class neighborhood outside Melbourne. His parents were devout Christians and Salvation Army volunteers. They could only afford to buy Norman hand-me-down footie boots or track spikes as a kid, yet they regularly found time and money to help those who had less than they did.

“Peter used to spend a lot of time on the streets of Melbourne looking after the homeless,” Matt Norman said. “While he was doing that, he’d speak to a lot of Aboriginal homeless people. What that experience taught him is that we’re all the same people. We’re all part of the human race.”

As the elder Norman blossomed into one of Australia’s finest sprinters in the early 1960s, his convictions about equal rights for people of all races only intensified. He spoke out against Australian policies that blatantly favored whites, and discriminated against Asian immigrants and people of indigenous descent.

In those days, Australia clung to a "White Australia policy" designed to limit non-European immigration and develop a racially insulated white society. Australia didn’t begin to loosen those restrictions until after World War II and didn’t implement a policy to disregard race as a factor in approving immigrants until 1973.

Discriminatory laws against indigenous Australians were even more abhorrent to Norman. Australia sanctioned the forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their birth parents into the 1970s. The practice stemmed from the racist notion that indigenous Australians were inferior and that their lives would improve if they assimilated to white culture.

That attitude clashed with everything Norman believed. In his nephew’s 2008 documentary, Norman explained, “I couldn't see why anyone would dislike or, to the nth degree, hate someone simply because they were a different color.”

The racial strife that plagued Australia during that era mirrored tensions elsewhere in the world. Anger over the oppression of Blacks dominated the buildup to the 1968 Olympics and threatened to overshadow the Games themselves. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. earlier that year fueled talk that America’s Black Olympians might boycott or organize a widespread protest. A coalition of African countries also threatened not to send any athletes if apartheid-era South Africa was allowed to participate.

And yet while Norman’s viewpoint was clear entering the 1968 Olympics, no one expected him to take a stand on a medal podium in Mexico City. Never mind that it was frowned upon to use the Olympic platform to advance a political or social cause. Australia also hadn’t produced a medalist in the men’s 200 in 68 years.

The first sign that Norman was a threat to American dominance in the short sprints came in the opening round of the 200 meters. Taking advantage of Mexico City’s high altitude and fast synthetic track, Norman ran a speedy 20.23 seconds to break the Olympic record and establish himself as someone to watch in the upcoming rounds.

Though Carlos held him off in a semifinal heat the following day, Norman crossed the finish line optimistic that he could reverse the outcome in the final. He turned toward the notoriously cocky Carlos and boldly told him, “You have this one John, I’ll take the next.”

American athlete Tommie Smith (third from right), wearing black socks, jubilates after crossing the finish line of the men's 200m final ahead of Australian Peter Norman and compatriot John Carlos during the Mexico Olympic Games in 1968. (AFP/Getty Images)
American athlete Tommie Smith (third from right), wearing black socks, jubilates after crossing the finish line of the men's 200m final ahead of Australian Peter Norman and compatriot John Carlos during the Mexico Olympic Games in 1968. (AFP/Getty Images)

The race and the protest

While the finals of the 1968 men’s 200 are best known for what happened on the medal stand, the race itself was also memorable. What was supposed to be a showdown between American rivals Smith and Carlos turned out to be more than just a two-man duel.

Carlos exploded out of the blocks just like he always did, but this time he could not hold his lead coming out of the turn. Smith blew past him with ease and ran the final 10 meters with his arms in the air. His time of 19.83 seconds stood as a world record for the next 11 years.

When Carlos appeared to lose his concentration after realizing that he could not catch Smith, Norman took advantage. The notoriously fast-finishing Aussie maintained his top-end speed longer than his adversaries and edged Carlos for second place at the finish line by four hundredths of a second.

“John looked to his left looking for Tommie Smith, but Tommie had gone past him by that point,” Peter said in Matt’s documentary. “Then John said to himself, ‘Oh shoot, the white boy.’”

Norman’s silver medal-winning time of 20.06 seconds was nearly a half-second faster than his personal best before the Olympics. To put into perspective how fast that is, Norman’s time would have won gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and placed third in Rio de Janeiro five years ago.

Inside a room that held their sweatsuits and bags, Smith and Carlos revealed to Norman their plan to make a statement during the medal ceremony. They would shed their shoes and wear black socks to symbolize Black poverty. They would raise their gloved fists in a show of Black power and unity. They would bow their heads in recognition of those who previously died fighting for the cause. Emblazoned on their chests would be badges featuring the logo of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a group founded by activist Harry Edwards to protest racism in America and abroad.

“Do you believe in human rights?” Carlos asked Norman. The Australian said that he did.

Norman then surprised Carlos by asking if he could show his support by wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights button on the medal stand. He borrowed one from an American rower and pinned it proudly on his chest.

“He said he would never have raised a fist because that wasn’t his purpose,” Norman’s nephew, Matt, said. “His purpose was to show that he supported what John and Tommie were doing.”

Before the first notes of "The Star-Spangled Banner" played over the stadium speakers, Norman turned away from Smith and Carlos to face the flags. Only the reaction of the crowd alerted him that Smith and Carlos had gone through with their plan to raise their fists skyward.

“I heard a voice from up in the stands sing the American national anthem,” Norman said during his nephew’s documentary. “He got about four bars in and then faded out to nothing. The stadium just went quiet.”

Peter Norman won the silver medal in the 200 meters at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. (Fairfax Media via Getty Images)
Peter Norman won the silver medal in the 200 meters at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. (Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

The backlash

A protest that is widely celebrated as an act of bravery today inspired mostly scorn and derision in 1968. Many Americans perceived it as an example of militant Black radicalism at the time and questioned if the medal stand was the appropriate place for a political statement.

Brent Musburger, then a young writer with the Chicago American, penned a particularly scathing column entitled “Bizarre Protest By Smith, Carlos Tarnishes Medals.” Instead of addressing any of the issues that Smith and Carlos raised, Musburger wrote that they “looked like a couple of black-skinned storm troopers” and argued that “perhaps it’s time that 20-year-old athletes quit passing themselves off as social philosophers.”

The International Olympic Committee banished Smith and Carlos from the rest of the Mexico City Games and barred them from competing at future Olympics. The current and former world record holders returned home to anonymous death threats, anxious family members and slim job prospects.

In predominantly white Australia, the controversy over Norman’s support for the protest quickly overshadowed the greatest feat of his athletic career.

The head of the Australian Olympic team received orders to punish Norman for wearing the civil rights badge on the podium. Julius Patching protected Norman, calling him into his office with a smile, telling him to “consider yourself reprimanded” and then asking how many hockey tickets he wanted.

Eventually, Norman ran out of allies. In 1972, he wasn’t selected to the Australian Olympic team despite having achieved the qualifying standard in both the 100 and 200 many times that year. He responded by retiring from track and field only a day later, arguing that his exclusion was a byproduct of lingering resentment over his actions in Mexico City.

“I’d earned the frowning eyes of the powers that be in track and field,” Norman later said. “In 1972, for I think the first and only time, Australia was not represented by any [men’s] sprinters in Munich. If they had any sprinters at all, they would have had to have taken me.”

Athletics Australia initially explained the omission of Norman by citing his third-place finish in the 200 at Australian trials. Not until 2012 did the Australian governing body posthumously apologize to Norman “for the wrong done by Australia in failing to send him to the 1972 Munich Olympics, despite repeatedly qualifying.”

“The truth of the matter is they could have easily selected him,” Matt Norman said. “The excuse always was, 'Well he didn’t qualify,' but the day of qualifying he had an injury and he had run qualifying times 15 times that year. The Olympic committee brought other runners based off their previous experience. If they’re going to do that for them, they surely should have brought Peter.”

The elder Norman’s story turned more tragic in 1985 when he underwent surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon and the procedure went wrong. The wound became infected, gangrene set in and Norman narrowly avoided amputation.

Confined to a wheelchair while relearning to walk, Norman battled addiction and depression. Alcohol, in particular, was Norman’s vice of choice over the final 20-plus years of his life.

It couldn’t have helped Norman’s mental health that Australia chose not to honor him alongside its other past legends at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Norman’s only official role at those Games, according to his nephew, was to open a table tennis competition in Melbourne.

When USA Track and Field official Steve Simmons learned that Norman had been shunned, he was so mortified that he arranged flights and accommodations himself for Norman and his wife. That was how Australia’s finest sprinter became a guest of USA Track and Field at an Olympics in his home country.

Tommie Smith, (left) and John Carlos carry Peter Norman's casket from the Williamstown Town Hall on 9th October, 2006. (Fairfax Media via Getty Images/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)
Tommie Smith, (left) and John Carlos carry Peter Norman's casket from the Williamstown Town Hall on 9th October, 2006. (Fairfax Media via Getty Images/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Bonded for life

As Smith and Carlos evolved from pariahs to heroes over the past few decades, they carried Norman’s legacy along with them. Carlos, in particular, mentioned Norman at every opportunity, praising his conviction and courage and insisting that the Aussie was the right man to share the podium with him and Smith.

In an interview with the Library of Congress, Smith said “God put Peter Norman there to make this thing solidify. We’ve got 50 million white people running around on the planet. Out of 50 million white people, I don’t think we’d have found two to match Peter Norman.”

The shared experience in Mexico City bonded Norman and his American counterparts for life. Smith and Carlos may have bickered over their recollections of the race and its aftermath, but their respect for Norman endured and eventually blossomed into friendship.

When San Jose State honored Smith and Carlos with a bronze statue in 2005, the two former Spartans were disappointed to learn that Norman’s spot on the podium would be empty. Carlos only agreed to allow the project to go on after Norman gave his blessing.

“I didn’t do what you guys did,” Norman told Carlos. “I supported what you guys did.

“I think it’s only fair and apropos that I not have my statue there, so when people come from around the world to come to that school, they can take their picture standing in my spot and supporting what you guys did.”

It was Matt Norman who informed Smith and Carlos in 2006 that his uncle had unexpectedly died of a heart attack. The two Americans both rushed to Melbourne, where they poignantly eulogized Norman and served as pallbearers at his funeral.

Norman’s sudden death brought him long-overdue recognition in Australia. So did publicity from the 2008 release of “Salute!” — his nephew’s critically acclaimed documentary. Suddenly, the forgotten man from an iconic sports photograph found himself posthumously in the spotlight.

In 2012, Australia issued its formal apology to Norman, acknowledging his “extraordinary athletic achievements” and the role he played furthering racial equality. Seven years later, Athletics Australia declared Oct. 9 to be "Peter Norman Day" and unveiled a statue of Norman outside a stadium in his hometown of Melbourne. Driven by the success of his documentary, Matt Norman is now working on turning his uncle’s story into a feature film.

“When I started the whole process, it was because no one knew anything about Peter,” his nephew said. “It has been a real joy to see people actually talking about him again.”

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