Australia’s Forgotten Hero

Posted on: October 19, 2018, by :

Fifty years ago, on 16th October 1968, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in the Black Power salute on the medal podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics to protest against racial inequality. The protest became one of the most indelible sporting moments of the 20th century. Much less known, for a long time at least, was the silver medallist, Peter Norman, a white runner from Australia, who stood in solidarity with Smith and Carlos.

Norman didn’t raise his fist, but he did wear an “Olympic Project for Human Rights” badge on his chest after telling gold medallist Smith and third placegetter Carlos he supported their stance. Norman said later: “I think most Australians would favour what I did. At least I hope they do. I believe in civil rights. Every man is born equal and should be treated as humans. I thought this was a good chance to have a white man on their side.”

Smith and Carlos were sent home from Mexico in disgrace by the US Olympic Committee, while Norman also suffered a backlash for his role in the Black Power salute. When Norman returned to Australia following the 1968 Olympics, he faced intense criticism from the public and media. He was also ostracised by the Australian Olympic Committee, who decided not to send him to the 1972 Munich Olympics, even though he had met the qualifying time on numerous occasions.  Interestingly, Norman’s silver medal-winning time from 1968 still stands as the Oceania 200m record.

While he has long been celebrated in the US for his contribution to civil rights, Australia has only belatedly made efforts to remember Norman’s achievements in athletics and his contributions to racial equality. After his death in 2006, some Australians began recasting Norman’s actions in a more positive light. But it was not until 2012 that the Australian parliament issued an official state apology to Norman. And in April 2018, the Australian Olympic Committee posthumously awarded Norman its Order of Merit, a significant gesture given the AOC has consistently denied blacklisting Norman after his return from Mexico.

This is one of the great inspirational stories of Australian sport and stands as a reminder of the importance of holding firm to our values, taking a stand for the cause of justice and lending our voices in solidarity with those who are oppressed or treated unfairly, even it appears that no-one is listening. These days our voices may be heard through online petitions, through letters to Members of Parliament, through Facebook or Twitter campaigns, through rallies and marches in support of specific causes … … we don’t have to look far to find pathways into social action.

I wonder what cause might stir you to action this week?

David Brooker

[Material from and The Australian was referenced in this article.]

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