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Soup of This Day #237: Said I’d Like To Know Where You Got The Notion

August 26, 2012

Three Proud People
Sometimes before you can take a stand you have to run really fast. And if they’re unhappy with you just standing there they’ll try to stop you running again. It’s a crazy world – Photo: Newtown graffiti, 2010 (Original artist unknown). Newtown graffiti is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

Peter George Norman is the fastest Australian to run the 200m. His record of 20.06 would have won the gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Would have.

If only he’d been invited to participate.

Which to be fair was unlikely in terms of athletic competition, as he was 58 at the time and a little past his running prime.

Actually a lot past his running prime really – That record time was set in an Olympic final but it was 1 held 32 years before Sydney. Peter Norman ran 20.06s in finishing 2nd to Tommy Smith in Mexico City’s 1968 Olympic Games. That his time set then, now 44 years past, is still the best by an Australian is astonishing. That it would have been good enough for 6th at the 2012 London Olympics is extraordinary.

There were no hi-tech drinks or gels to assist Norman then – Gatorade was in its infancy in 1968 and although it had become the official sports drink of the NFL the year before it didn’t have much traction overseas at this point. The equipment was also more primitive – The shoes heavier and the spikes giving less traction. The clothing was not the bespoke muscle compressing type that we’re used to now and the science of running was not at the level it is now – There was no advanced injury management or a great understanding of how to maximise the potential of the human body.

And Norman wasn’t exactly a full-time professional runner. He also worked as an apprentice butcher and then a teacher. Endorsement deals were a way off in 1968.

And he still ran 20.06s.

But by 2000 he was 58 and therefore too old to participate as an athlete at the Sydney Games. That’s ok. Nothing untoward about that call. Peter Norman could just be there in a ceremonial capacity – A kind of figurehead for Australians to celebrate around.

Or not.

Peter Norman was not invited to be involved in the 2000 Sydney Games by his country in any capacity – As far as the organising Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) was concerned Peter Norman could buy his tickets like any other punter and watch from the stands. You see, Peter Norman was persona non grata as far as the Olympic movement was concerned and to understand why we need to go back to 1968, shortly after that scorching 20.06s run had won him a silver medal…

In those celebratory moments just after the run and prior to the medal ceremony there were 2 factors that were to have a major impact on Peter Norman’s career and life thereafter. The 1st was that he had come 2nd to US runner Tommy Smith and ahead of another US runner, John Carlos. Both happened to be African Americans and both were determined to make a political statement on the medal dais with the world watching on.

The 2nd factor was that, when asked by Smith, Peter Norman chose to stand with them, making his own comment on human rights. As the US national anthem played and Smith and Carlos gave the Black Power salute, each a fist raised in the air, Norman quietly stood in front of them wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badge on his tracksuit top.

There are 2 things to note about this iconic moment: a. Smith raised his right fist and Carlos his left. This was because Carlos had forgot to bring a pair of gloves and at Norman’s suggestion they split the pair that Smith had brought along; and b. The OPHR was not an officially sanctioned group – It had advocated for a boycott of the 1968 Games unless, among other things, South Africa and Rhodesia were banned from attending and Muhammad Ali was restored his World Heavyweight Boxing Title. Smith and Carlos were both among the founding members of the primarily African American OPHR. They had support in Mexico City from the Harvard members of the US rowing team – It was 1 of them who had given Norman the badge.

It was such a small thing, that badge – In the photo of that moment it looks to be maybe 5cm in diameter, sitting above the Australian team shield on the left breast of Peter Norman’s tracksuit top. You can’t make out the detail on it, it’s political statement given power only by sparse descriptions given later, after the event. And even then, when there were two be-gloved African Americans giving a Black Power salute behind him, who was really going to notice the badge on the white guy?

The Olympic movement.

Which does not appreciate political statements, no matter how well intentioned or right. Although how they reconcile that thinking with pretty much the entire 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Berlin is hard to work out. Meanwhile for Peter Norman it turns out that the same Olympic movement that allowed some good ol’ fashioned Nazi saluting can long bear a grudge if you cross the line in a more subtle and much less morally reprehensible way.

Peter Norman easily ran qualifying times for the 1972 Olympics in Munich. In spite of that he was not selected to go. In fact no Australian sprinters were selected. The AOC now says it was because he was injured – A charge that those connected with him deny, at least in so much as they feel it would not have been a problem in Munich.

You could debate that for a while – It’s hard to prove 1 way or the other, the distance in time having muddied the waters somewhat. What is a fair bit clearer is that Peter Norman was initially excluded from the 2000 Olympics in any official capacity by his home country. In spite of this blatant snub he did make it in the end, invited by well-meaning officials.

From the US team.

Yep, Peter Norman, who had represented his country at the 1968 Olympics, was blanked by the AOC at the 2000 Olympics, held in Australia. Meanwhile the US team stood by him.

And they honoured him not just the once. When Norman died in 2006, Tommy Smith and John Carlos helped carry his coffin and the day of his funeral was named Peter Norman Day by the US Track and Field Association.

The US moved on, recognised the moral validity of the position, but somehow we never got around to it and so a quiet man who took a stand took the fall, long after the right and the wrong had been settled.

Which is why last week our Federal Parliament debated a motion to apologise to Peter Norman.

About bloody time.

Said I’d Like To Know Where You Got The Notion

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