Peter Norman - The Third Man
After crossing the finish line as second at the 200m final at the Olympic Games
in Mexico in 1968, establishing the Australian national record, Peter Norman found
himself in a holding room awaiting the award ceremony with winner and world-record
holder Tommie Smith and bronze medallist John Carlos. He was fully aware of the
controversy created by the possibility of a protest from the black American athletes
which had been expressly forbidden by known racist and Nazi-sympathiser
International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage. As part of their Olympic
Project for Human Rights, black American athletes had considered boycotting the
Games, but had later decided that victories would have given them a much better
platform. So when Peter saw that Tommie and John were plotting something to
defy the ban on protests, he asked to be allowed to be part of it.
Peter Norman was a working class lad who had to borrow spikes when he started
running, because he couldn’t afford to buy some. He was born and grew up in Coburg,
a working class suburb of Melbourne, and was sent to work as an apprentice butcher
at 13, before finding out his talent as a runner. His family was deeply religious, and
he witnessed and opposed the de-facto apartheid system in Australia that denied the Aborigines the right to vote, and the policy of Aborigine children’s forced removal from their families to be raised by whites. So when he told Tommie, “I believe in what you believe in and I want to help,” and Tommie told him, “White boy, you’re Australian… Go get your medal,” Peter felt it was his business and said, “I’ll stand by you.” They discussed what to do, and as John had left his black gloves at the Olympic Village, it was Peter who suggested that they wore one each of the pair they had. Tommie and John were wearing the large, white Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, and Peter asked if he could have one. They didn’t have an extra one, but when Peter saw Paul Hoffman, the cox of the rowing team (a Jewish crew from Harvard that supported the OPHR) he asked him for his, and pinned it on his chest. Later John Carlos said that he looked at Peter in the eye “expecting to see fear, but I saw love.”
Peter did stand by them, joining silently in their protest, all three clearly displaying the OPHR badge on the rostrum. Tommie and Carlos were behind him, so he couldn’t see what they were doing, but he later said that when he realised the stadium had fallen into complete silence, he thought, “They’ve done it.”
And, like them, he paid a high price. He was not expelled from the Olympic Village as Tommy and John were, but on his return to Australia he was reprimanded and ostracised. He was not allowed to take part in the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 in spite of running thirteen times the qualifying time for the 200m and five times for the 100m, and the Australian team didn’t field any sprinters for the first and only time in its Olympic history in order to stop him. He quit athletics and turned to rugby. He struggled to make a living as a coach, and for a while drifted into alcoholism and depression, while his first marriage disintegrated. As Tommie and John said, they at least had each other, but Peter was alone.
He later found his feet again, and he became a teacher and a trade unionist. But the Australian Olympic committee was determined that he should be erased from history, and in spite of the fact that his result in Mexico City still was (and indeed is) the Australian record, he was not invited at the Sydney Olympics in any capacity. When the black American athletes, who had not forgotten him, found out, they called him, sent him two flight tickets and invited him to Michael Johnson’s birthday party. When he arrived at the party, he met Edwin Moses and said, “Hi, I’m Peter Norman”. Moses smiled and said, “I know who you are.”
Peter, Tommie and John (who called Peter “my brother from a different mother”)
remained friends all their lives, and Peter was invited to the inauguration of the
monument at San Jose
He died in 2006 of a heart attack. Tommie and John gave a moving eulogy each
In 2012 the Australian Parliament apologised for how Peter was treated.
The quality of this video is not good because it was uploaded with the wrong
aspect ratio,but it’s still worth watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFQs-1Mo8vk&t=3s
Also highly recommended the documentary Salute, available on DVD and on streaming (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0874317/).