Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Peter Norman, Australian Olympian

If you have kept an eye on the news in the last couple of weeks you will have noted that the Federal Parliament stopped the mud-slinging and sledging for long enough to offer an apology to one of our greatest athletes, Peter Norman, a competitor in the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Read on to find out why.

There were two unforgettable moments at these games. American Bob Beamon had the track gods smiling on him when he made a prodigious leap of 8.9 metres to win the long jump. In dong so, he bettered the previous world record by 55 cm (almost 2 feet). Later video analysis uncovered a number of factors that came together in a perfect scenario to enable Beamon's feat. The games were held in the altitude of Mexico City where the air is thinner; Beamon had the maximum allowable wind assistance; and his take-off was centimetre perfect - he was just short of the foul line when he leapt into history. His record stood until 1991 and is still the second-longest jump ever.

The second unforgettable moment came at the medal ceremony for the men's 200 metre sprint event. American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals respectively. They were separated on the finish line by Aussie Peter Norman, whose time of 20.06 seconds still stands as the best time ever recorded for this event by an Australian. But that wasn't the end of the story. Six months earlier, Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis Tennessee, and the United States was still in a quagmire of civil rights demonstrations. Smith and Carlos, both black athletes, had decided to make a civil rights protest at the medal ceremony. Each wore a single black glove and made the black power salute by raising that arm and clenching the fist. Peter Norman was aware of the plan, and he joined the protest by wearing a human rights badge above the Australian logo on his track suit. Here is the now-historical moment of the protest.  
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(Photo: public domain)

To many Australians at the time, Norman's participation in this protest was unpopular. There were rumours that this was the reason that he wasn't selected for the next Olympics at Munich, or for any other Australian team. Peter Norman was not invited to many of the official events at the Sydney 2000 Olympics until the American team invited him to be part of their delegation. Up until his death in 2006 he was virtually ostracised from Australian athletics. American track athletes named the day of Norman's funeral Peter Norman Day, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos came out from the States to be pallbearers at his funeral.
(Photo: Angela Wylie via brisbanetimes.com)

Hence the belated apology from the Federal Parliament, stirred on no doubt by the London Olympics that have just finished. Norman was at last praised by his countrymen for his heroism and humility.

As part of the makeover of Burnett Lane, someone has painted a wall with a representation of Norman, Smith and Carlos at the medal ceremony. It should remind us that we all are humans, and that discrimination and bigotry have no place in a modern society. Here it is.
 (Photo: © 2012 the foto fanatic)


In the ego-driven celebrity culture that surrounds many sportsmen today, one could do worse than think back to Peter Norman who recognised a wrong and was prepared to stand up against it. For anyone who would like to know more about Peter Norman the man, I recommend a movie called "Salute", made by his nephew Matt Norman and available at your video store.

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tff

5 comments:

  1. I remember those Games very clearly and I remember the medal presentation as well. At that stage, the Martin Luther King murder was still an ugly silencing of a symbol of peace and equality.

    When did the poster go up in Burnett Lane? Is there some risk that right wingers and racists might deface it?

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  2. Wow ... I didn't know that. I've seen that famous photo quite a few times but I've never clicked that it's an Aussie standing there and protesting too! Again ... wow! Good on Peter Norman. What a brave man for those times and so sad that it took so many years after his death for his contribution to both athletics and civil rights to be recognised.

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  3. Hels: I don't know when it was put there, but fellow Brisbane blogger posted an image of it nine months ago. Although reachable from the ground, no-one appears to have interfered with it yet.

    lmag: Before now, Norman never received the recognition that he deserved for taking this conscious decision to support his fellow athletes.

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  4. The mural, of which this is only one, is by Emory Douglas and Richard Bell, and was commissioned independently of the BCC's Burnett Lane redevelopment. Refer http://www.milanigallery.com.au/exhibit/mural-burnett-lane

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  5. This mural seems to have disappeared in the last couple of weeks. Does anyone know why or if it is coming back?

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