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Salute and the not-so-silent supporter

February 08, 2016
tags:#1968, #Australia, #documentary, #film, #human rights, #Mexico 1968, #Olympic Games, #Salute documentary, #USA
located:Australia, USA
by:Vanessa Ellingham
Matt Norman’s documentary Salute goes behind one of the most powerful images of the twentieth century: that of two black American athletes standing barefoot on the Olympic victory dais, giving the black power salute.

When Tommie Smith and John Carlos made this gesture after coming first and third respectively in the men’s 200m final at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, they became instant human rights icons, championing black civil rights on the world stage.

But the man to the left of them, Peter Norman – the director’s uncle – who has often been perceived as the “immobile white guy”, icily ignoring their silent protest, was actually the third hero of that night, the documentary reveals.

Although Australian Norman appears to be quite outside the protest in the photograph, the badge he wears, from the Olympic Project for Human Rights, rendered so tiny in this historic image, was actually a huge show of solidarity – one he would pay for for the rest of his life.

Racial tensions reaching a head

1968 was a huge year for the civil rights movement globally.

By the time the athletes reached Mexico in October 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy had both been assassinated, and demonstrations had galvanised people across the United States demanding equality for all.

News of the protests reached around the world, drawing demonstrations of solidarity in Europe and in Australia, where there were protests against racism in the US as well as the apartheid-style laws restricting indigenous Australians that had resulted in the lost generation.

Norman, who had been raised in the Salvation Army, was a supporter of these protests.

Meanwhile, student riots in Mexico prior to the games resulted in imprisonments and even deaths. In the documentary John Carlos says he asked about the protests before his arrival in Mexico City, but felt like the death toll had been grossly played down.

Locals were questioning how a massive international event could be brought to Mexico while the nation’s poor were hidden away, unable to benefit from the wealth being thrown around inside the stadiums and Olympic village – a debate which continues to this day in developing countries chosen to host international sporting events, including Brazil which will host the Olympic Games this August.

As the games drew nearer, there were calls for black American athletes to boycott the Olympics, something Carlos himself had advocated.

After one of the boycott’s demands were met – that South Africa and Rhodesia have their invitations to the Olympic Games withdrawn – the boycott dissolved, and Carlos and Smith decided that they would participate in the games, but that if they won medals, they would use their moment in the spotlight to stage a protest.

In the documentary Norman jokes that if they’d only gone through with the boycott, he could have won a gold medal, instead of the silver. “But if the boycott took place it would’ve taken away one of the only platforms the black athletes still had.”

Champions in more ways than one

As soon as the Games started, the United States team quickly began dominating the track and field events and it looked as if the men’s 200m final would be decided between Smith and Carlos.

But then Norman set a new Olympic record with a time of 20.17 in his heat. They’d never heard of this Australian before and it was totally unheard of for white athletes to be registering times equal to their black counterparts. They needed to keep an eye on Norman.

In the final, Norman made an even faster time of 20.06 seconds, an Australian record that still holds today. Meanwhile, Tommie Smith set a world record in the final with a time of 19.83 seconds, while John Carlos came in at 20.10. It was an epic race that would easily have made history, and that was without what was about to happen next.

Because Smith and Carlos had been performing so well, White America had been forced to sit up and pay attention to them. Both men believed that God had put them in this position not only to run a good race, but also to deliver a message.

Apprehension had been building among the black American athletes – when would they get a chance to get their message out? The first guys to win medals did nothing when presented with the opportunity, which was only understandable, with rumours of gunmen in the crowds ready to take down anyone with an anti-racist message.

But now that Smith and Carlos had run their race, they felt it was time to do what they believed they had really come to Mexico to do.

As the three athletes readied themselves to receive their medals, the two Americans realised they’d only brought one pair of Black Power gloves – the symbol of black oppression they had planned to use during the ceremony.

Norman suggested they wear one each and then, seeing their Olympic Project for Human Rights badges, asked if they had a spare one he could wear in solidarity. He was on their team.

In the film Carlos explains: “Peter [Norman] didn't have to take that button. Peter wasn't from the United States. Peter wasn't a black man. Peter didn't have to feel what I felt. But he was a man.”

Norman says, “I believe in human rights. The fact that we were from different teams, had different skins, didn't make all that much difference”.

All three men feared for their lives as they marched to the podium. The two Americans walked barefoot with their shoes in their hands, drawing attention to black deprivation. Norman wore the badge on his Australian team jacket, right on top of his heart.

After receiving their medals, the three athletes turned towards the United States flag for the national anthem. And as the first notes piped out, the two Americans raised their gloved fists and bowed their heads. The anthem was cut short.

“It's been said that sharing my silver medal with that incident on the victory dais detracted from my performance,” says Norman in the film, “but on the contrary I've got to confess that I was rather proud to be part of it”.

The world wasn’t ready

Both Smith and Carlos were thrown out of the Olympic Village and sent home to the US where they became outcasts. Subjected to abuse and receiving death threats, their family lives became strained. Smith, the winner of 11 world titles, could only find work at a car wash.

The world was not ready for what these two men had to say.

But at least they had each other, and the civil rights movement behind them. As John Carlos says, “If we were getting beat up, Peter [Norman] was facing an entire country and suffering alone”.

In Australia, Norman became ostracised from the athletics community and, despite qualifying for the 1972 Munich Olympics 13 times, was not chosen for the team. His athletics career was over.

Norman was given one opportunity to condemn his fellow athletes in exchange for a pardon that would have allowed him to be part of the organization of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, but he refused, and was not even invited to the event. When Smith and Carlos found out, they invited him to be part of their group at the Sydney games.

Australian athlete Norman passed away in 2006. Finally, in 2012, the Australian government issued a formal apology, one he would never get the chance to hear.

Norman still holds the Australian record for the men’s 200-metre race with a time that would have earned a gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

The documentary captures a human rights legend as an elderly statesman still full with the meaning that his moment brought to the human rights movement: that when you have the world’s attention, you need to use it for something good.

“What anyone chooses to do with that square metre of earth on the victory dais is entirely up to them.”

Norman knew exactly what he wanted to do with his.

Article written by:
Vanessa Ellingham
Australia USA
Salute - Trailer
The documentary captures a human rights legend as an elderly statesman still full of the meaning that his moment brought to the human rights movement: that when you have the world’s attention, you need to use it for something good.
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