Few moments in Olympic history are as visually memorable as the Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, and this moment had very little to do with sporting competition. Two black American sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their fists in defiance while a third man stood in silence. That man was Peter Norman, sprinter for the Australian team, and he’s often thought of as a visual footnote in that powerful image. If anything, Norman looks awkward and out of place.
Appearances may, however, be deceiving. Not only was Peter Norman a willing participant in the brazen protest for human rights, but he was also more than eager to play a role in it. Smith and Carlos found an ally in their fellow sprinter, setting up what should have been an inspiring story of interracial togetherness. Unfortunately, Norman also ended up being the individual most personally affected by the photo, as he watched his sudden infamy destroy his career, reputation, and place in his own home country.
The year was 1968, and the fight for civil rights in the United States was as heated as ever. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated earlier in the year. One place where African Americans could usually feel welcome was in the sporting world, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos were two excellent examples of that as they competed in the Olympics, which were held in Mexico City that year.
However, Smith and Carlos were both deeply affected by the issues back home, and they wanted to use their time in the Olympic spotlight to send a message. Smith finished the 200 meter run in first place, setting a world record, while Carlos finished in third.
At the podium, the two wore carefully coordinated outfits, with black socks and no shoes representing black poverty, a black scarf for black pride, an unzipped top for the working class, and black gloves thrust high into the air in the universal symbol for black power. They raised their salutes with their heads bowed as the Star-Spangled Banner played, eliciting a shocked reaction from the crowd and a firestorm of controversy back in the United States.
Once the heat died down, both Smith and Carlos were hailed as heroes and civil rights icons.
Peter Norman is often portrayed as the “other guy” in the famous photo because he is white and just sort of standing there, raising no salute of his own. However, Norman was in on it from the beginning, and he actually played an integral role in planning it.
Norman was considered a long shot to sprint in the Olympics, but he put in the performance of his life, finishing second to Smith. Afterwards, Norman became aware of Smith and Carlos’s planned demonstration, and he wanted to be a part of it. Back home, Norman was already a staunch anti-racism advocate, and human rights were an important issue to him. He was excited at the opportunity to make a stand alongside his fellow sprinters.
On the day of the ceremony, when it was discovered that Carlos had left his black gloves back at the Olympic village, it was Norman who suggested they wear one glove each on opposite hands. Wanting to make a visual demonstration as well, Norman asked an American rower to borrow his badge, which read “Olympic Project for Human Rights.” Properly adorned, Norman took the podium with his fellow winners, bowed his head respectfully, and waited for history to happen.
The deafening silence told him that the Americans had gone through with it before he even raised his head to see.
The consequences for Tommie Smith and John Carlos were swift, as they were kicked out of the Olympics – banned for life – and sent home to face death threats and controversy. Eventually, however, the two were hailed as civil rights heroes. Peter Norman would not be quite so lucky. Upon returning to Australia, Norman found himself a pariah for what some of his countrymen viewed as an attack upon white people.
Norman obviously assented to the act, even if his fellow Australians had no idea just how complicit he actually was.