man in that photo
By GRIOT. Published on October 3, 2015
photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It
represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious
gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at
the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
The photo is a powerful image of two barefoot black men,
with their heads bowed, their black-gloved fists in the
air while the US National Anthem played. It was a strong
symbolic gesture – taking a stand for African American
civil rights in a year of tragedies that included the
death of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.
People never really paid attention to the other man,
motionless on the second step of the medal podium. He
was considered a random presence, a kind of intruder.
But the truth is that white man in the photo is,
perhaps, the biggest hero of that night in 1968. His
name was Peter Norman, he was an Australian sprinter who
arrived in the 200 meters finals after having ran an
amazing 20.22 in the semi finals.
In the finals, he ran the race of a lifetime, improving
on his time yet again. His record still stands today, 47
years later. It was a great race but it will never be as
memorable as what followed at the awards ceremony.
It didn’t take long to realize that something big,
unprecedented, was about to take place on the medal
podium. Smith and Carlos decided they wanted to show the
entire world what their fight for human rights looked
like, and word spread among the athletes.
Norman was a white man from Australia, a country that
had strict apartheid laws, almost as strict as South
Africa. There was tension and protests in the streets
following heavy restrictions on non-white immigration
and discriminatory laws against aboriginal people.
Smith and Carlos had decided to get up on the stadium
wearing the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, a
movement of athletes in support of the battle for
They would receive their medals barefoot, representing
the poverty facing people of colour. They would wear the
famous black gloves, a symbol of the Black Panthers’
cause. But before going up on the podium they realized
they only had one pair of black gloves. “Take one each”,
Norman suggested. Smith and Carlos took his advice.
But then Norman did something else. “I believe in what
you believe. Do you have another one of those for me?”,
he asked, pointing to the Olympic Project for Human
Rights badge on the others’ chests. “That way I can show
my support for your cause.”
The three went out on the field and got up on the
podium: the rest is history, preserved in the power of
But these athletes would pay the price their entire
lives for that gesture. Smith and Carlos were
immediately suspended from the American Olympic Team and
expelled from the Olympic Village. Once home the two
fastest men in the world faced heavy repercussions and
But time, in the end, proved that they had been right
and they became champions in the fight for human rights.
Peter Norman is a hero that no one ever noticed. A
forgotten athlete, deleted from history, even in
Australia, his own country.
Four years later at the 1972 Summer Olympics that took
place in Munich, Germany, Norman wasn’t part of the
Australian sprinters team, despite having run qualifying
times for the 200 meters thirteen times and the 100
meters five times.
Norman left competitive athletics behind after this
disappointment, continuing to run at the amateur level.
He was treated like an outsider, his family outcast, and
work impossible to find. He was facing an entire country
and suffering alone.
Peter Norman was the greatest Australian sprinter in
history and the holder of the 200 meter record, yet he
wasn’t even invited to the Olympics in Sydney.
He died suddenly from a heart attack in 2006, without
his country ever having apologized for their treatment
of him. Only in 2012 did the Australian Parliament
approve a motion to formally apologize to Peter Norman
and rewrite him into history.
However, perhaps, the words that remind us best of him
are simply his own words when describing the reasons for
his gesture, in the documentary film Salute:
“I couldn’t see why a black man couldn’t drink the same
water from a water fountain, take the same bus or go to
the same school as a white man. There was a social
injustice that I couldn’t do anything about from where I
was, but I certainly hated it. It has been said that
sharing my silver medal with that incident on the
victory dais detracted from my performance. On the
contrary. I have to confess, I was rather proud to be
part of it”.