Athletes standing together for justice

Many people would have heard of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, winners of the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meters event at the 1968 Olympics held in Mexico, because of their black-gloved clenched fist salute protesting racism captured in the iconic photograph below. Carlos had left his pair of black gloves back at the Olympic village, which is why he and Smith each wore a single glove on different hands.

The third man in the photo is Australian Peter Norman, who was white and a staunch anti-racism advocate. He won the silver medal and also joined in the protest but differently, wearing a button that said “Olympic Project for Human Rights”. For his action, Norman was vilified by the people in his home country, ostracized by the Australian authorities, and deliberately overlooked for the 1972 Olympics, despite being the highest finisher for an Australian sprinter in Olympic history and a contender for the gold medal. When the 2000 Olympics were held in Sydney he was not invited by the Australians to be part of the ceremonies. It was American athletes and the US Olympics Committee that invited Norman to be part of their delegation and stay with them at the village. It was just recently that the Australian Olympic Committee tried to make amends for their past awful behavior and awarded Norman a posthumous ‘Order of Merit’.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the deep and lasting friendship that developed between these three men, including how Smith and Carlos went to Australia to deliver eulogies and be pall bearers at Norman’s funeral in 2006 following his death from a heart attack at the early age of 64. In the June/July 2018 issue of The Progressive (not online yet), Dave Zirin adds some stories of the bonds between them that I was not aware of.

John Carlos has told me, in conversations over the years, “I always felt like Peter Norman, after those Olympics, had it tougher than Tommie or me because in the United States they took turns kicking our asses. In Australia, Peter was on his own.”

When San Jose State University erected a massive statue in tribute to alumni Smith and Carlos in 2005, they decided to leave the silver medal stand empty. After Carlos received word that Norman would not be represented, he marched into the office of the school’s president and said he wouldn’t have anything to do with a statue of 1968 that erased Peter Norman from their shared history.

But Norman, contacted by phone, told Carlos that this space was left open at his request, so that people “can climb the statue and stand where I stood and feel what it felt like for me to be a part of history” To this day, when there are protest actions on campus, students climb to the spot where Peter Norman stood.

Two years ago, another statue of Tommie Smith and John Carlos was unveiled, this one at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. On this occasion, Norman was included, the carefully crafted detail of his Olympic Project for Human Rights button on full display.

“We can’t let them erase Peter and have statues or photos or book covers just be of Tommie and me”, Carlos said. “When they try to erase Peter, they are really erasing the truth that there were young white people who stood with us, who stood with our message of racial justice and our solidarity with oppressed people throughout the world. They want to isolate us and isolate the message.”

Peter Norman has been the ultimate symbol of true kinship in struggle for fifty years. His belated recognition by the Australian Olympic Committee presents an opportunity to recall what an extraordinary person he was, and why his part of this story – his place in the picture – matters.

Athletes have a highly visible platform from which to make statements about justice but not many of them do because they must be willing to pay a price as we saw with Smith, Norman, and Carlos back then. We still see it now with people like Colin Kaepernick who are vilified by odious people like Donald Trump and his supporters.


  1. says

    Because American racism is so blatant, it’s easy to forget how racist Australia and Canada can be. Probably New Zealand too. I guess when you have a country built on colonization and genocide, it bakes racism right into the bones.

  2. Quirky says

    Donald Trump is certainly blameworthy due to his lack of leadership in setting a proper example.
    What is even sadder here however is that the people still look for and await a leader. If they would stop buying tickets to games and assert their own leadership, i.e.autonomy, then individual rights to kneel or to express dissent in any other fashion would be recognized by corporate power moguls.
    Problem is most people have given up and forgotten what autonomy feels like. The moguls know this and are confident that on the large scale people will forfeit their own autonomy to be a part of a group. Especially if they are conditioned to hope and believe that their group will win. The exuberance that is shared by the members of the winning group seems to make up for the unconscious loss of their autonomy.
    And should they find themselves on the side of the losing group, just the hope of experiencing that shared exuberance in the future along with being a part of a larger organism, a group, larger than themselves provides solace. As individuals they have been conditioned to feel so ever small. Without group-think just who would they be?
    It is true in sports and likewise in politics.

  3. Roj Blake says

    Tabby, I suspect that racism manifests itself in different forms in different nations. You are right that there is racism elsewhere, not just in the US, but as a 65 y/old white fella, born and bred in Oz who lived and worked in NZ for 11 years, there are differences.

    It is easier, I think, to be racist when one has less contact with the “other”.

    Even on the mostly white British heritage South Island where I lived, it is impossible to go through a normal day’
    s life without interacting with Maori. They are your workmates, the girl on the checkout, the man behind the bar, the bank teller, the woman who reads the news on TV.

    In Oz, it is possible to go for a year or more without interacting with a single aborigine. I run a small business and have one aboriginal customer. When Ivan comes in each Saturday, there is my aboriginal contact for the week. It is not my choice, it is a lesson in how aboriginal people have been erased from society. I don’t know how we improve that.
    One bright light from my time in NZ is a Maori workmate I still keep in contact with. During the work week he kept his hair in a long, tight pony tail. On weekends, out came the hair, on went the kilt, and out came the Bass he plays in a thrash metal band. Some people would call it “cultural appropriation”, I though it was a hoot that he could express himself in such a way.

  4. rjw1 says

    Tabby Lavalamp@2

    Well, that’s certainly not confined to the so-called “settler countries” which were colonised rather recently.
    I’ve often wondered if invasion and genocide is behind the racism in Asia, for example. The Caste system in India, the recent genocidal civil war in Sri Lanka. Was there a colonisation in antiquity? The situation in Myanmar where ethnic minorities are under constant attack particularly if they’re living on valuable real estate. The Chinese invasion of Tibet perhaps?

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