A FORGOTTEN HERO
by Uli Schmetzer http://www.uli-schmetzer.com
When two Americans raised their fists in the Black Power salute in 1968 no one paid much attention to the third man. After all he had not raised his own fist though pinned to his chest was a button demanding equal rights for all mankind no matter what their color or creed.
The button-badge would become the cross Peter Norman carried for the rest of his life.
His country, Australia, neither redeemed him nor officially recognized he had not acted against the spirit but in the spirit of the Olympic Games. Australia’s greatest sprinter was never allowed to run in another Olympics. The ultra-conservative Australian society and its complacent media saw Norman not as a fighter for civil rights but as ‘a troublemaker who sided with the villains who desecrated the Olympic flag.’
The grudge of a pompous Australian establishment was such that thirty two years after his gesture of solidarity at the Mexican Olympics Peter Norman became the only Australian Olympic medal winner not invited as official guest to the Sydney Olympics of 2000.
Peter Norman would have been 70 years old this month, just a few weeks before another Olympic Games, this time in London, will rivet the sporting world and cast the limelight on past champions, those, unlike Norman, who were never forgotten.
I owe him an apology – posthumous for having also forgotten him.
I was at the Aztec stadium in Mexico City as a journalist for Reuters News Agency when Tommie Smith, the gold medalist and John Carlos, the bronze medalist raised their black-gloved fists at the medal ceremony for the 200 meter Olympic dash during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner. Wedged alongside them in the photo that made the headlines around the world was a slim self-effacing Australian, the surprise silver medalist who had run a world record in the semi-finals, a record that still stands as an Australian record.
We, the media, did not take much notice of Norman. After all he had not raised his fist; he was white; he was silent; he was not American; he made no statement and he had no obvious grudges. All attention focused on the two African-Americans who were expelled from the Games and sent home in disgrace by the U.S. Olympic team management.
What I did not know until a few years ago was that Peter Norman suffered a far worse fate: He was quietly and deliberately ostracized, gradually and in the same hypocritical ways his country carried out for nearly two hundred years its callous and secret extermination and persecution of the Australian aboriginal population.
Norman had been tainted with the same tar brush by the Australian establishment that was used to paint the natives as a lazy, untrustworthy and subhuman species, stone age tribal people who were hunted down like wild beasts by squatters and station owners, herded into reservations, raped, robbed and routed from their land, people who had no recourse to the laws of the country because the white Australian government did not recognize them as citizen or fellow human beings but only as part of the indigenous flora and fauna.
One year before Peter Norman made his silver medal dash at the Mexican Olympics Australia’s aborigines were ‘awarded’ citizenship and with it the right to a passport, the right to vote, the right to legal protection. That was back in 1967.
Norman came from a devout Salvation Army family, a strong believer in human rights and the equality of all mankind. He sold meat pies to buy his first running spikes. He suffered from asthma and wagged school to train. He became a butcher’s apprentice, later a teacher. His family had fought for aboriginal rights at a time when aboriginal children were still taken from their mothers and fathers and boarded with white people. A Royal Inquiry in the 1990s found the children were often raped and abused by their foster fathers amid an official policy: ‘To breed the blackness out of them.’
For Norman it was only normal and Christian to support Smith and Carlos in their symbolic gesture for the rights of colored people in the USA just as it had been natural to campaign for aboriginal rights in an Australia that pretended it was doing everything it could, including lavishing social security payments for its aboriginal population while in reality there existed, and still exists the same racist streak of their forefathers who took the land by force from the natives with the justification the entire continent was ‘terra nullius’ (Nobody’s Land).
Persecution in Australia has always been executed quietly, subtly, without fuss, but with the complicity of the establishment and its fawning media. Once tar-brushed as undesirable the paint sticks forever. Norman was not exempted from such treatment. At the Olympic Village he was only mildly reprimanded by his country’s Olympic officials for wearing a button on the victory dais with the initials ‘OPHR’ (The Olympic Project for Human Rights).
Even his open confession that he told the two Americans ‘I will stand with you’ was quietly accepted. So was his admission that when Carlos forgot his black gloves, he had suggested the two should each wear one of Smith’s gloves, the reason why Smith wore the right glove, Carlos the left in the picture that went around the world.
Unlike the Americans the Australians announced no official sanction against their star sprinter. He simply vanished into oblivion. He was not banned from competing at home. He simply was never selected for another Olympics although his running times qualified him. The media did not talk about him.
Since the Olympics in 1968 I had lived abroad as foreign correspondent and like most Australians I knew nothing more about Peter Norman except that he had stood on the same dais as Smith and Carlos. Even today most Australians know nothing about the man who believed so strongly in the equality of all human beings that he was prepared to sacrifice his fame and future, conscious as he must have been, that a super-conservative Australian officialdom would never forgive him for having embarrassed their allies – the United States. Besides, the trend to support colored people in the USA might spill over into Australia.
Australia never rehabilitated Norman nor apologized for turning him into an undesirable unlike the United States where Smith and Carlos were reinstated in the 1980s as heroes and torch carriers of civil rights.
I did attend the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000 this time as correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. I had long forgotten Norman. Like everyone else I was unaware he had not been invited for the lap of honor given to all Australian Olympic medal winners. Sick, tired, depressed and addicted to pain killers he was once again ignored.
But not by his old buddies, Smith and Carlos, who had kept in touch with him over the years. When they heard he was snubbed once more, 32 years after the ceremony in Mexico, the two men convinced the US Track and Field Federation to invite Peter Norman as the personal guest of the Federation at the Sydney Olympics.
Six years later Peter Norman died of a heart attack on October 9, 2006, a day the U.S. Track and Field Federation now celebrates annually as ‘Peter Norman Day.’
Smith and Carlos flew from the United States to be pallbearers at his funeral. In his eulogy Carlos referred to that historic moment on the dais: “Peter didn’t have to take that button. Peter was not from the United States. Peter was not a black man. Peter didn’t have to feel what I felt. But Peter was a man.”
Then he added: “I expected to see fear in Peter’s eyes. But I saw only love.”
Perhaps it is time a new Australian generation learned about this remarkable man. One certainly can not expect the old generation to repent.
Uli Schmetzer was foreign correspondent for Reuters and the Chicago Tribune for 37 years. He is the author of ‘Times of Terror’ ‘Gaza,’
‘The Chinese Juggernaut’ and ‘The Lama’s Lover’ (to be released in July 2012.) All are available in print and digital version on http://www.Amazon.com