Sports Justice Pioneer: I Meant to Tell You

Something in yesterday’s post about the guys from Concrete Hoops – young men who see sport as a chance to better their communities – reminded me of a story that I read last fall. Chances are excellent that you missed it, too, so let me introduce you to Peter Norman, today’s posthumous hero.

You may have heard of the Black Power salute given by 200 metre Olympic gold medallist Tommie Smith and his American compatriot, bronze medallist John Carlos. It was 1968, the year of the Mexico City Olympics. There were also bitter riots over Mexican poverty. Yes, and there were also the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and a level of social unrest that American culture had never seen before, or since. At least, not in the same way. During the medal ceremony, as the Star Spangled Banner played, Smith stood erect, bowed his head and raised a black-gloved right hand. Carlos raised his left.

Conservative America was outraged. Smith and Carlos were dismissed from the Olympic team for their perceived disrespect of country, and their athletic careers were over. I was too young to understand the implications of what happened then, but I was far from alone in missing entirely the significance of the silver medallist who shared the Black Power podium. He was a white Australian named Peter Norman. When he died last fall, Carlos and Smith were pallbearers. John Carlos said of Norman, “Peter was a piece of my life….I was his brother. He was my brother. That’s all you have to know.”

Norman, it turns out, was not an accidental bystander. He was a fellow activist, and though he did not raise a gloved fist, he stood beside his fellow athletes not only by athletic chance but by shared conviction. (The story goes that, when Carlos realized he’d forgotten his black gloves back at the hotel, Peter Norman suggested that each of them wear one.) In Australia, it was noticed that he showed no surprise at Smith’s and Carlos’s actions, that he wore the same badge on his Aussie warm-ups as they did: Olympic Project for Human Rights. He was vilified. He never ran for Australia again. He also never apologized for standing quietly for a principle that, to him, was a simple fact: that racism tainted the world of sport at many levels, and that it had no place.

There is a film on Norman coming out sometime this year. Meanwhile, it is once again thanks to American writer Dave Zirin that this significant passing, on the other side of the globe, did not pass me by. You can read his very fine tribute to Norman here. He called it “Brother of the Fist: The Passing of Peter Norman”.

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