There is a great interview with former Olympian John Carlos over at The Starting Five. After being shunned for years, John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s famous raised fists in the 1968 Olympics have received critical attention and tributes more recently. However, the role of white Australian silver medalist Peter Norman is largely unknown to new generations.
Because his fist was not in the air in that famous picture, many mistakenly believe that he had no role in the protest. In the TSF interview, Carlos clarifies:
We also cannot forget what Peter Norman did for human rights as well. Before the 200 meter finals, Tommie and I told him we were the Olympic Project for Human Rights. We asked asked him if he believed in human rights and he said, of course I believe in human rights. He was a humanitarian in relation to what was happening in his country to the Aboriginal people. He wore a OPHR button on the medal stand and he was shunned in Australia for that! He didn’t disrespect his country! He did nothing but stand at attention and be proud of representing his country with a badge on his jersey that said I believe in human rights!
When he went back, it was like he went back to South Africa. People need to know about Peter Norman. They also need to know the Harvard University Crew team, a group of white individuals, who supported us as well.”
I said [to Peter Norman], “If you make it to the podium with us, would you like to wear the Olympic Project for Human Rights button?” Without saying a word, he started reaching for mine like a kid in a candy store. I just about smacked his hand. “You can’t have this one, but we’ll get you one,” I told him…
He passed away far too young in 2006. But I don’t think too many days go by during the course of the week that I don’t think about him. Peter had a beautiful soul and he endured hell when he went home to Australia after the Olympics. The press treated him terribly: he was the white man who stood with those two aboriginal devils, John Carlos and Tommie Smith. I have always said, Tommie and I had each other, but Peter was by himself.
After the 1968 games, when we came back home to the States, one day the press would kick my ass, then take a break and kick Tommie’s. But in Australia, they were on Peter twenty-four, seven. You couldn’t even say that Peter disrespected his flag or his country. He merely wore a button supporting human rights and said, “I believe in supporting humanity in every way that we can to make this a better world.”
He was shut out of the Australian track and field world and even though he was the most accomplished sprinter in that country’s history, when Sydney hosted the Olympics in 2000, there was not even a ceremonial role to be found for one Peter Norman. But I will say this: in all the years that went by, I never heard Peter complain once publicly. He was a man without ego. But as I learned in that race, he was also one hell of an athlete.
In the book, Carlos also cites support of the Harvard Crew Team:
The Harvard crew team also stood up for us with a great statement. “We—as individuals—have been concerned about the place of the black man in American society in their struggle for equal rights,” read the statement. “As members of the US Olympic team, each of us has come to feel a moral commitment to support our black teammates in their efforts to dramatize the injustices and inequities which permeate out society,” it continued. They put that together right in the aftermath, and it meant a great deal to Tommie and me. But most of the athletes acted as if they stood close to us, they would get shit on their suits…
Carlos later continues:
People have asked me often if their support shocked us. But Harvard, believe it or not, was a radical place in those days. At the time, no one was surprised that an elite Ivy League school would have rowers down for the cause… They said that they weren’t concerned about reprisal for their political beliefs or their spiritual beliefs so they were just like us. They felt like, whatever the consequences, we needed to come together to do the job. They had been with us all along, giving us their thumbs-up and full support. That support lasted through the years. Before I left for Australia to be a pallbearer at Peter Norman’s funeral, one of those old rowers, in an act of true generosity, gave me his OPHR badge so I could place it on Peter Norman’s coffin.
History has left behind the critical support of Peter Norman and the Harvard Crew Team, and with a sports media that often skips over white athletes when debating social expectations beyond the field, this interview and book are right on time. In “Why Don’t More Athlete’s Take a Stand?” by Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith, Carlos addresses the issue of “athletes today”:
“They don’t know history! They don’t want to come out of their box and risk people taking away their lollipops!”
Carlos clearly wants to correct that history for future leaders to follow. In his TSF interview, Carlos concludes:
“But most of all, what people need to understand is that what we did wasn’t controversial. It was about right vs. wrong.”
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