The Question of the Salute: Rehabilitating Peter Norman

I believe that every man is born equal and should be treated that way.”

— Peter Norman, Australian sprinter, quoted in The Independent, August 20, 2012

Rehabilitation was the term used to restore the reputations – often posthumously – of those who were wrongly accused, condemned and executed by various regimes during the Cold War.  Ideology has a habit of filling the morgues with its followers.  In notional democracies, persecution has tended to be of a milder sort, though victims still abound.  In 2006, the Australian runner and athlete Peter Norman died, having been, it has been argued, a victim of ideological mania – at least at the hands of the sporting establishment.

Norman still holds the Australian Olympic record for the 200 metres – for which he won silver at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.  But that is less known than the role he played alongside fellow athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won the gold and bronze respectively in that race.  History, vague as it is, records the men in sombre salute in a year when the Vietnam War was eating away at the American conscience in league with the civil rights push.

What is less clear is how Norman figured in the black power salute.  Of Salvation Army parents, egalitarian of spirit and solid working class, he donned the same human rights badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights as his fellow athletes, fully aware of what Smith and Carlos intended.  The podium became political.

Peter’s nephew, Matt Norman, produced a film Salute featuring the exploits of his uncle.  It was released in Australia four years ago to a lukewarm reception, revealing Peter’s lateral thinking at work – as both Smith and Carlos lacked a pair of gloves each, they would share one.  That, it seems, was Peter’s suggestion.  Enter then, the immortal moment, fists held in the black power salute on the podium, with Norman a complicit and silent witness on the side.

Reaction from the IOC was as predictable as it was hypocritical.  The Olympics is perhaps one of the most pompous showings of politics on the field there ever was, with one catch: the athletes must mutely abide by their superior’s instructions, tabula rasa in sporting regalia.

Both Smith and Carlos were banished, a precedent that continues to be invoked even to the present.  At the London games, the Australian boxer Damien Hooper was warned that wearing a black T-shirt sporting the Aboriginal flag would violate the Olympic Charter.  The Australian Olympic Committee, vassals and all, scotched any “repeat” incident.  The protocol fascists in the IOC junta were pleased.

As for Norman, the stuffed shirts in the Australian sporting establishment took their revenge by overlooking the athlete for Munich – despite having qualified for both the 100 and 200 metres and being ranked fifth in the world.  When the Olympic Games made its fetid way to Sydney in 2000, he was again snubbed in an official capacity by Australian authorities, only to have Team USA extend an invitation.  Memories, including those on black power, can be such irritating drawbacks, and it is fitting to note that Norman’s gesture of collegial protest was made at a time when Aboriginals had yet to get the vote, and the White Australia policy was still on the statute books.

Federal Labor MP Darren Leigh has been the crusader seeking a parliamentary apology for Norman.  “The cheers from the crowd turned to jeers.  There was shouted at Smith and Carlos some of the worst racial insults you can imagine.  And so Peter Norman could easily have looked the other way, and he didn’t.  He stood on the right side of history” (ABC, August 20). The forum, however, may be less impressive than the gesture.

Nephew Matt Norman was impressed by Leigh and less than impressed by the sporting apparatchiks who were responsible for overlooking Norman for the subsequent games.   “We’re really proud that someone’s taking the effort to go out and make that apology; I think the apology would be better suited from the Olympics organisation and also the Australian Athletics Association” (ABC Statewide Drive, August 20).

International sports, and the Olympics in particular, might attract fabulous athletes.  But they also tend to be rich pools for supine bureaucrats keen on graft and suspicious of political expression. When an athlete breaks the mould, deciding that being a show pony for state interests is hardly suitable, the officials huddle in the hope of finding a solution.  In the case of Norman, it was never to select him for the Australian sprint side.  That may remain supposition, but it is in all likelihood the best one.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.