The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City were quite an event, even by Olympic standards. These were the Games that saw the Olympic debut of Australian legend Raelene Boyle. Apart from that, these were also the Games where Dick Fosbury introduced his ‘Fosbury Flop’ technique in the high jump, revolutionising the sport. Today the Fosbury Flop is used near-universally by high jumpers – and earned Fosbury the nickname ‘Floppy Dick’.
It was a huge Olympics for jumpers: Bob Beamon annihilated the long jump world record, his leap of 8.90 metres exceeding the previous mark by 55 centimetres in a feat thought impossible for any non-marsupial. Elsewhere, John Stephen Akhwari finished the marathon in last place with a dislocated knee, proving once and for all that sport simply is not worth it.
But the 1968 Games were most notable for an event that transcended sport, a truly remarkable moment that demonstrated the great truth that when people are caught up in the immensity of history, some shrink away from the light, while others grow to fill the space that they have been thrust into.
First, let us take a look at the men’s 200 metres final. This race was won by American Tommie Smith, in a world-record time of 19.83 seconds. His countryman John Carlos came third in 20.10 seconds. Between the two Americans was silver medallist Peter Norman, an Australian, who had run a time of 20.06 seconds, which was at the time an Oceanian record and, remarkably, remains so more than fifty years later1.
Such are the facts of the 1968 men’s 200 metres Olympic final. A good race, a fast race, but just a race. Smith’s second was superb while remaining nothing more than a very fast bit of running. Norman’s second, though very meritorious, was not one to shake the foundations of the earth. And the 100 metres always gets more attention anyway. If it weren’t for what happened after the 200, it’s unlikely anyone not in the medallists’ immediate families would have remembered it as far as the next Olympics, let alone for the next half-century.
It’s hard to imagine such a thing today, when it’s not an issue at all, but back in 1968, quite a lot of people were racist. In fact – this will really stun you – white people, in particular, were often quite racist towards Black people. And if that’s not enough to make you shake your head in disbelief, a lot of the racist white people lived in the United States of America. As it happens, Tommie Smith and John Carlos lived in the United States of America, and also incidentally, they happened to be Black. This meant that in all likelihood they’d noticed a bit of racism in their time. Earlier in 1968, Martin Luther King had been murdered as a result of some white Americans’ considered view that Black people were getting too uppity nowadays. It was what you might call ‘a hot-button issue’.
As a white Australian, Peter Norman had not experienced racism in the same way that Smith and Carlos did. Growing up in Coburg – the same suburb that gave us Raelene Boyle; something in the water of Merri Creek, obviously – in a devout Salvation Army family, he would certainly have been instilled with a strong sense of the importance of doing good in the community. However, as has been shown frequently throughout history, there is often a wide divergence between what a religious organisation considers to be ‘doing good’ and what, say, a dictionary might reveal about the meaning of those words. Suffice to say, though church-going people have been a force for positive change in racial equality over the centuries, other church-going people have been a little more relaxed about the status quo, whether that be discrimination or segregation or human beings owning other human beings.
If it weren’t for what happened after the 200, it’s unlikely anyone not in the medallists’ immediate families would have remembered it as far as the next Olympics.
From an early age, Norman was an unusual phenomenon: a white man who could run fast. There have been few of these in Australian history, and even fewer who opted for athletics instead of one of the sports that earns you money or is fun. As such, he was in a perfect position to become a bona fide national hero when he headed to Mexico City at the age of twenty-six to take his place in the men’s 200 metres, the event dubbed ‘the thinking man’s 100 metres’.
It had been a long and hard journey to the Olympics for Norman, as evidenced by the fact he didn’t get there until twenty-six, which is about seventy-five in athlete years. In 1962 he had competed in the Perth2 Commonwealth Games in the 220 yards, which is what the 200 metres was called before everyone stopped being so stupid. He finished fourth in the quarter-finals, which was a pretty good effort assuming you have no standards. He missed out on the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 due to injury, thus denying him the chance to talk Dawn Fraser out of stealing a Japanese flag and save her career. In 1966, finally able to run in metric, he won the national 200-metre title, but sadly, the Commonwealth Games was still in stupid old-people lengths, and he bombed out in the gruelling 220 yards. It was clear that Peter was a metric specialist: over 200 metres he retained his national title in 1967 and 1968.
So it was he arrived in Mexico, hopes high but expectations realistic: he was still white, after all. But what the doubters hadn’t reckoned with was the thin Mexico City air. You see, due to a design flaw in the Earth’s atmosphere, places that are high have less oxygen than places that are low3. This has two effects: long-distance runners have a much higher risk of suffocating while running; and sprinters have much less resistance to push against.
Peter suddenly found himself running faster than ever thanks to vacuum-y surroundings, and his confidence soared. Running on air – but less than ever before – he set an Olympic record in his heat. The record wouldn’t last long, because after the heats all the other runners started trying harder, but it was still a feather in his cap. What’s more, he progressed through the quarter- and semi-finals and found himself in an Olympic final, every little boy’s dream – or at least a few of them anyway.
Norman was given very little chance in the final, and rightfully so: among the bristling, toned talent stretched across the start line he stood out, frankly, like a white Australian in an Olympic sprint final. For most of the race the public’s conviction that he was well out of place looked justified, as he slipped back behind the leaders. Reaching the final, it seemed, would have to be enough.
Au contraire, mon amis! In sixth coming round the bend, Norman literally4 exploded down the straight, his skinny, pale, Antipodean legs stretching out to unfeasible lengths, loping past international stars like a giraffe overtaking lawnmowers. The Americans Smith and Carlos were leading the pack, but just before the finish line, Norman slingshotted himself into second, splitting them like a banana. The world reeled in shock. Then they went and watched the pole vault or something, because it wasn’t that interesting.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos now had a chance to put a rather audacious plan into effect. They had been profoundly affected not just by the racism that they had seen and experienced over their lifetimes, but also by the spirit of the 1960s: the decade that began with the BBC introducing their first ever female newsreader, and ended with actual full-on boobs on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Progress was in the air like the smell of an onrushing steamroller, and the American civil rights movement was the steamrolliest steamroller of all. Black Americans had been marching in the streets, fighting for their rights, and generally refusing to sit in the back of the bus, and Smith and Carlos were determined to use their platform – literal and figurative – to tell the world that they were part of that movement, and would not stay silent.
So it was that after the race, before walking out to accept their medals, the two Americans made some special arrangements with regard to their attire. To symbolise the poverty that afflicted the Black community, they took off their shoes and donned black socks. To symbolise Black pride, Smith wrapped a black scarf around his neck. Carlos, jacket unzipped, wore a bead necklace. He later said the beads were for:
… those individuals that were lynched, or killed, that no one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage.5
They also wore black gloves to represent Black power – or at least, that was the plan. John Carlos, with that absent-mindedness typical of the elite athlete, forgot to bring his, leaving them back at the Olympic Village among all the condoms and McDonald’s wrappers that are apparently all over the place. This created a dilemma: if Carlos did not wear his gloves, Smith’s gloved condition would look silly. For the first time since the Kokoda Campaign, an Australian came to the rescue.
“Why not,” Peter Norman politely piped up, “wear one each?”
The Americans stared at each other, stunned at the quicksilver mind of this quiet whitey. One each: what a concept! And thus inspired, it was with one glove each that John Carlos and Tommy Smith walked out onto the Olympic arena.
They also wore Olympic Project for Human Rights badges. The OPHR had been formed in 1967 – Carlos and Smith being founding members – to protest racial segregation and racism in sport. The organisation threatened a boycott of the Mexico City Games if four demands were not met:
- The return of Muhammad Ali’s world heavyweight title, which had been stripped from him due to his opposition to the Vietnam War.
- South Africa and Rhodesia to be uninvited to the Olympics due to their racist governments.
- Avery Brundage to resign as IOC president due to him being racist and generally a dick.
- More hiring of Black assistant coaches.
In the end the boycott didn’t come to pass, partly because South Africa and Rhodesia didn’t come after all. But the OPHR would still make a splash.
But it wasn’t just Smith and Carlos making that splash. Joining them in the deep end was Peter Norman, the white man who was not an American, not a member of the OPHR, not involved in the affair at all … unless he wanted to be. It seemed he did: as Smith climbed onto the gold medal podium, and Carlos ascended to his bronze position, Norman stepped into silver place, also wearing an OPHR badge proudly on his tracksuit.
“Why not,” Peter Norman politely piped up, “wear one each?”
Norman had hitherto not stood out as a man likely to stick his head above the political parapet. He was a quiet achiever: an apprentice butcher from suburban Melbourne who later moved into teaching, and who had kept fit prior to the Olympics by working as a trainer for the West Brunswick footy team. In a country where prominent sportspeople have always been able to find a willing audience to listen to them spout whatever half-considered opinions have floated tragically into their feeble minds, Peter Norman had no inclination towards outspokenness or unwanted oar-sticking-in.
What he did have, however, was his family. Many people have been brought up in devout households and ended up with nothing to show for it but an unnatural enjoyment of marching bands. But the Norman family was one of those weird Christian families that believed in equality and justice and the betterment of all mankind, and in their quiet, understated way, they instilled those values in young Peter. The Normans were determined to raise the lad right, and when, after the Olympics, Mrs Norman would make a habit of purchasing the Guinness Book of Records every year, because her son’s picture was in it, it was a great reminder that they’d succeeded. Perhaps it was the thought of those moral lessons he had drawn from the Bible – and the thought of the deeply immoral lessons that he had ignored from the Bible – that gave him the strength to step out into the humid Mexican air beside his American colleagues as a thousand flashbulbs punctuated the night and the world looked on in anticipation of the heartwarming, wholesome routine of a regular Olympic medal ceremony.
1 Apparently Oceanians are incredibly slow people. Back to article.
2 It’s just … nobody cares where the Commonwealth Games are held at all, do they? Back to article.
3 Not too low, obviously: underground doesn’t have much oxygen either. Back to article.
4 Not literally. Back to article.
5 A reference to the sea route by which Africans were taken to the Americas for the slave trade, a historical period which white Americans continue to consider it slightly gauche to mention. Back to article.
The medallists ascended the dais. Time stood still, while history crackled around the arena like electricity. The Australian stood in silent solidarity as the Star-Spangled Banner played, and Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and silently raised black-gloved fists to the sky. Boos rang out around the stadium and there was a sharp intake of breath from US and Olympic authorities as they realised that these rude young men had introduced the squalid odour of – shudder – politics into the sweet and fragrant air of the Olympics.
This was not what the Olympics were for! They were for the celebration of sporting excellence. They were for the coming together of the world’s peoples in peace and festivity. They were for the marketing of various products and the enrichment of various businesspeople. They were for the glorification of governments, the placating of electorates, the papering over of social and economic cracks, the maintenance of grandiosely mendacious narratives about the superiority of certain national populations over others and the reinforcement of soothing illusions regarding the acceptability of the status quo. But for athletes to protest against injustice? Never! It simply was not done. If medallists were to go round raising their fists willy-nilly, people might start getting the idea that sportspeople cared about things – such an outcome was unthinkable.
Accordingly, Smith and Carlos were hit by a swift and ferocious backlash. Avery Brundage, the same racist old coot the OPHR had tried to shift from his seat at the head of the IOC table, denounced their action as a domestic political statement unfit for the Olympic forum, which was supposed to be entirely international and apolitical apart from when dictators wanted to show off a bit. It may be relevant at this time that in 1936, Brundage had been US Olympic Committee president, and had not objected to Nazi salutes, considering them perfectly acceptable displays of admirable patriotism. Brundage ordered Smith and Carlos be suspended from the US team. The US Olympic Committee, displaying a surprising flash of spine, refused. Brundage threatened to suspend the entire team. The US Olympic Committee, apologising for their shameless display of backbone, agreed, and kicked Smith and Carlos out. The following day the IOC stripped both men of their medals.
Back in the US the reaction was just as vicious. Commentator Brett Musburger called Smith and Carlos “black-skinned stormtroopers”. Time magazine dubbed the protest “a public display of petulance that sparked one of the most unpleasant controversies in Olympic history”. Smith, Carlos and their families received death threats. Smith was kicked out of the Army and a rock was thrown through his baby’s bedroom window. In the years after the Olympics, both men faced financial struggles as obstacles were thrown in the way of their careers. Under the pressure, Carlos’s marriage fell apart, and four years after separating, his wife committed suicide. America had long determined that the punishment for Black pride would be brutal.
As for Peter Norman, all he’d done was wear a badge and suggest the others share gloves, but for some, that was enough. The official response from Australia’s athletics hierarchy was one of deep disapproval, though not all members of that hierarchy were quite so strict: Julius ‘Judy’6 Patching, the Australian chef de mission7, told Norman, “They’re screaming out for your blood, so consider yourself severely reprimanded. Now, you got any tickets for the hockey today?” Most consider this to have not been a serious reprimand, as it is extremely unlikely that anyone would really want tickets to the hockey.
“If we were getting beat up,” said Carlos, “Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.”
Patching’s jocular wrist-slapping aside, Norman became the forgotten man of Australian athletics after ’68. Although a silver medal in an event where few Australians have ever come within a bull’s roar of a place was a colossal achievement, precious little recognition came his way in his lifetime. He was not selected for the 1972 Olympics: according to the AOC, this was down to his third place in the Australian Athletics Championships. But the fact he had beaten the Olympic qualifying time thirteen times in the previous three years – not to mention the little matter of a silver bloody medal – might lead some people to remark, “Hey, AOC, why not pull this one instead, bedecked as it is with bells?”
If many Australians believed that Norman was not suffering any consequences for his stand, Carlos and Smith themselves begged to differ.
“If we were getting beat up,” said Carlos, “Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.”
Certainly the Australia of the late 1960s was not a country that much liked to dwell on matters of racial prejudice or injustice (unlike the Australia of today where everyone is incredibly comfortable with it), even if those matters were occurring overseas: after all, drawing attention to the plight of Black Americans could lead to drawing attention to the plight of Black Australians, which would be, to say the least, awkward. And Peter Norman was an awkward kind of fellow: when he was asked after the medal ceremony if he supported Carlos and Smith, he not only said that he did but he also criticised the White Australia policy. This deeply upset many white Australians who quite enjoyed having a policy named after them.
In 2000, with the Olympics in Sydney and the entire nation leaping about waving their hands with joy at the attention the world was lavishing on us, Peter Norman received no official invitation to the Games, nor any official recognition from the AOC. The Committee insisted that this, like his non-selection in 1972, was not a sign of anything sinister – they simply couldn’t bring everyone to Sydney, and Peter could’ve bought his own tickets if he wanted.
If not a snub, this was at least a declaration that the AOC did not consider Norman to be anything special in the annals of Australian Olympic history. The possibility that he may have been the most extraordinary Aussie Olympian of them all never occurred to them. The Americans had certainly not forgotten him, however: after hearing he wouldn’t be attending the Sydney Games, the US invited him themselves. It takes a lot to make American sporting authorities look noble, but Australia has always punched above its weight.
Norman himself was not one to complain. In 1968 he had deliberately eschewed the spotlight, and nothing changed for him afterwards. He carried quietly on with his life, working as a teacher, playing football for West Brunswick, and fading with remarkable efficacy from the public consciousness. In 1985 he tore his Achilles tendon running in a charity race and came close to having his leg amputated. The injury led directly to painkiller addiction, alcoholism and depression. At one point he lost his driver’s licence, and was mortified that news reports about the loss featured photos of the Olympic protest: he felt that Carlos and Smith should not have been tainted by his mistakes. He suffered demons that have felled many a man, but Peter Norman was not one for being felled, and he beat them as he’d beaten so many other challenges: without a fuss. He later worked as a commentator and for the Victorian Department of Sport.
In 2006, Peter Norman succumbed to a heart attack at the age of sixty-four. He was buried on October 9, 2006, the day proclaimed ‘Peter Norman Day’ by the US Track and Field Federation – America always did appreciate Norman more than his own country. Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral and gave eulogies to the man who’d stood with them thirty-eight years previously.
Peter Norman was not one for being felled, and he beat his demons as he’d beaten so many other challenges: without a fuss.
Six years after his death, Australia’s Federal Parliament passed a motion recognising Peter Norman’s “extraordinary athletic achievements”, apologising to him for his treatment following the Olympic protest, praising his courage and “belatedly” recognising “the powerful role that Peter Norman played in furthering racial equality”. In 2019, a statue of Norman was unveiled at Albert Park’s athletics track – on Peter Norman Day.
Those who come second are usually merely bit players in the drama that is someone else’s victory. Funnily enough, Peter Norman was also a bit player in the much larger drama that built itself around the 200 metre final of 1968 – no doubt he wouldn’t have had it any other way. But a bit player can still be a hero, if he recognises the moment that the opportunity arises and grabs it.
Peter Norman, the fastest man in Australia, the lad whose mother bought the Guinness book every year, the Coburg kid who had no chance at the Olympics but ended up with a medal round his neck and a badge on his chest, grabbed it. Surely no silver medallist ever showed more champion qualities. For his part, Norman thought it was all terribly simple.
“I believe in civil rights,” he said in the aftermath of the medal ceremony, as controversy raged around him. “Every man is born equal, and should be treated that way.”
Questions for further study
- Why are white people so slow? Try not to be too racist in answering.
- Don’t you think ‘Every man is born equal’ is a very misogynistic comment? Explain why you think Peter Norman should be cancelled.
- Is Peter Norman the greatest person to ever be in the Salvation Army? Can you honestly think of anyone else? Me either.
This article is an extract from Second Best: The Amazing Untold Histories of the Greatest Runners-up. It’s available via Affirm Press from August 25.
Written by Ben Pobjie
Ben Pobjie is a writer and comedian whose promising rugby career was tragically cut short the day he stopped playing rugby and had a pizza instead. The most he has ever cried was the day Balmain lost the 1989 grand final. Today he enjoys the frolics of Wallabies, Swans, baggy greens, and Storm.
Design by Daniel Jeffrey
All images are via Getty Images