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Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman.

Fifty-three years ago last Saturday, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos got up on the medal stand at the Mexico City Olympics and did the Black Power salute. It’s legendary now, but back then, it was infamous. Brent Musberger, who would later become a famous announcer for CBS Sports and ESPN, wrote that Smith and Carlos were “a couple of black-skinned storm troopers.”

There was a third person on that medal stand and his story is at least as compelling as that of the two Americans.

Peter Norman basically came out of nowhere, both in the lead-up to the Olympics and in the fateful race, as well. He was smallish and while he looked like an athlete, he most definitely did not look like a sprinter. Nobody knew much about him when he got to Mexico City. He had rarely competed outside of Australia. The Americans were expecting to sweep the 200 meters. (Lennox Miller of Jamaica had broken the American stranglehold on the sprints by finishing second in the 100 meters, but Miller wasn’t running in the 200.) Meanwhile, people began taking notice of Norman when he broke the Olympic record in one of the early heats.

It should not have been surprising that politics would permeate the Games. In the United States that year, both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated, riots tore through several big cities (including outside of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago), and the war in Vietnam had become exponentially uglier after the Tet Offensive. In Mexico City, hundreds of student protesters were slaughtered by the military, a fact the government somehow tried to keep secret. And in Norman’s own country, the long-standing policies of “White Australia” were under fire. 

Smith and Carlos had expected to go 1-2 in the race, but Norman had crashed their party. Nevertheless, the Americans had planned their protest of the mistreatment of Black athletes (and African Americans, in general) well before the games and they were determined to see it through. But when it came time to mount the winners’ stand, they realized that they only had one pair of gloves. Norman suggested that each of them wear one glove. (That’s why, in the photo, Smith is wearing the right-handed glove, while Carlos is wear the left.) 

Norman, who had protested against the “White Australia” policies back home, went a step further. Some athletes wear wearing buttons that read “Olympic Project For Human Rights.” Quite tame by today’s standards, but the buttons were banned by the International Olympic Committee. Norman borrowed a button from a fellow athlete and wore it on the winners’ stand.

The conservative media in Australia went nuts. He was widely ostracized for “taking part in a Black Power protest.” Despite running qualifying times on multiple occasions, he was not allowed to represent his country in the 1972 Games in Munich. And then Australia would continue to do wrong by him for the rest of his life. 

Upon his arrival in Australia for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, American Michael Johnson, who was the top sprinter (200 and 400 meters) in the world at the time, sought out Norman. When they met, Johnson told Norman that he was Johnson’s hero. 

Australia did not invite Peter Norman to take part in any of the festivities in Sydney, despite the fact that his time of 20.06 seconds would have won the race in the 2000 games, some 32 years after he had run it. It is still the record in that event for all of Oceania (Australia, New Zealand and all of the South Pacific islands). Hearing about the snub of Norman, the American contingent invited him to participate in their Olympic festivities.

Norman died of a heart attack in 2006. Smith and Carlos flew to Australia to be pallbearers. On the campus of San Jose State, there is a statue of Smith and Carlos on the medal stand. Norman’s spot is left empty, on Norman’s insistence that people viewing the statue can step up and “take a stand against racism.”

In 2012, six years after his death, the Australian Legislature finally got around to apologizing for the shabby way he was treated by his country, officially stating, among other things, that Norman’s stand was “a moment of heroism and humility that advanced international awareness of racial inequality.” Too little, too late. 

May Peter Norman’s amazing courage at the perfect time never be forgotten.

 

EXTRA POINTS: After surprising Desert View handed Marana its first loss of the season a couple weeks ago, the Tigers were looking at a second-straight defeat at the hands of a Southside school when they hosted Sunnyside on Friday. The visiting Blue Devils jumped out to a 14-point lead and appeared to be cruising. Marana stormed back, scored late to pull within 1 point and then successfully went for 2 points. Marana improved to 5-1 on the season and the win over the ranked Sunnyside squad should improve Marana’s current No. 12 spot in the Power Points ranking…Canyon Del Oro won its fourth straight game, winning at Walden Grove, 42-21. The Dorados had opened their season with three straight losses, but could climb into state tournament consideration with the win…Amphi improved to 4-1 on the season with a convincing 42-7 win over visiting Douglas. Kiko Trejo was again the star of the game, scoring on two runs and a pass play to pace the Panthers…Ironwood Ridge dropped its third straight game, falling to Cienega, 31-21…

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