Day 940: The Fists That Punched The Olympics

originally published July 28, 2014

The morning of October 15, 1968, just four days of sun-bathed pomp and cheer into Mexico City’s Olympic games, was perfect for a foot race. Australian speedster Peter Norman blasted through his 200-meter quarterfinal race like a sugar addict in the opening throes of a pixie stick; he finished in 20.17 seconds, a new Olympic record. After coming in second in his semifinal, his motor was cackling in high gear for that final sprint, due to take place the following day.

Alas, the wind parted not for Peter in that final round. While he finished with a boast-worthy 20.06 – an Australian record that still stands some forty-six years later – the gold went to American Tommie Smith. Another American, John Carlos, poked his nose past the finish line just 0.04 seconds after Peter, meaning Peter was to find himself sandwiched between a pair of Yanks on the podium. No matter, it was still a day for the books.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos approached Peter after the race, and asked him if he believed in human rights. He did. Then they asked if he believed in God. No doubt feeling a smidge uneasy about this bizarre line of questioning, Peter replied that yes, he did. He’d been raised in a Salvation Army household – a military brat for Jesus, if you will – and his belief in God was as sturdy as any Stenocereus cactus popping out of the Mexican sand. Then the Americans confessed what they planned to do on the podium.

The raised fist was a symbol of Black Power, an emblem of a cultural struggle for basic human equality that at the time was pummeling America from a racist nation into a… a slightly less racist nation. Yes, the Black Power clenched-fist was also thrust in the air by those militant few who exercised their violent tendencies for that cause, but six months had passed since Martin Luther King’s assassination; more than anything, Tommie and John were making a solemn statement for equality.

Peter Norman’s reaction was humbling. He knew this statement, in particular chiming across television airwaves in that precarious slice of history when the quest for civil rights was a viable, almost graspable victory, was more important than any athletic triumph. He encouraged them, he applauded them. “I’ll stand with you,” he told them. John Carlos later said he’d expected to see fear in Peter’s eyes, fear that the moment of athletic achievement he’d spent his entire life striving for was about to be lost in the swampy story of a quiet protest. But John saw no fear. “I saw love,” he said.

On the way to the podium, Peter spotted American rower Paul Hoffman wearing a badge for the OPHR, the Olympic Project for Human Rights. He borrowed it. The Americans wanted to wear black gloves as part of their salute, but John Carlos had left his black gloves back in the Olympic Village. Norman suggested they split the one pair; John could salute with his left hand. The Star-Spangled Banner started playing and the two fists were raised.

As the newswires lit up around the globe, the Olympics finally delivering a front-page story meatier than a medal tally, the crowd went nuts. The athletes were booed as they left the podium, and the International Olympic Committee immediately began crafting their response. Tommie Smith expressed no regret. “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”

Avery Brundage was not Black America. He was the president of the IOC – the first and only American ever to hold that position – and he felt this “domestic political statement” had no place on an Olympic podium. The Games are famous for being wholly apolitical, or so the IOC has always stated. He ordered Tommie and John to be suspended from the US team and banned from the Olympic Village. The US Olympic Committee stood behind their athletes and refused, at which point Brundage threatened to ban the entire American track team from the rest of the Games. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were sent home.

Keep in mind, Avery Brundage was president of the American Olympic contingent back in 1936, and made no complaints when German athletes performed the Nazi salute after a win. That was a national salute, Brundage claimed, while Tommie and John were making a totally different statement. It should also be noted that Brundage was an outspoken Nazi sympathizer, even after the outbreak of World War II, and it was one of the stated aims of the OPHR to have Brundage removed from office.

Whether or not Black America supported the salute (and I suspect for the most part they did), the rest of the nation was split. Their families received death threats – that’s right: death threats. They brought home two medals for their country, but for stretching a closed hand toward the sky for a few seconds, people threatened to murder their families. Their careers as track stars were practically shmushed. However, as with most acts of pathetic racism in America, the sparkly looking glass of hindsight eventually shifted the country’s collective outlook.

Both had brief careers in football – Tommie with the Cincinnati Bengals and John with the Philadelphia Eagles. Tommie became a track coach and received the California Black Sportsman of the Millennium Award in 1999. John Carlos overcame the front-page story and tied the world record for the 100-meter dash the following year. He worked as part of the team that brought the Olympics to Los Angeles in 1984. Their stories ended happily.

But Peter Norman’s? Not so much.

Australia’s Olympic honchos railed against Peter’s complicity with the salute. He may only have worn a Human Rights badge beside the Americans, but he was utterly lambasted in the Australian media. Over the next four years Peter hit a qualifying time for the 100-meter run five times and for the 200-meter run thirteen times, yet he was not invited by his own country to the 1972 Olympics in Munich. In fact, Australia opted not to send any track athletes to those games, the first time in the history of the modern Olympics that they stayed off the track. Perhaps they were afraid Peter Norman would embarrass the country again by standing beside people whose arms weren’t positioned at the appropriate angle.

Peter finally appeared as a hero once again when the Olympics were held in Sydney in 2000. Oh, not by the Australians; they went out of their way to avoid including the silver-medal-winner in any way, either in the lead-up hype or as part of the traditional Opening Ceremonies national tribute to themselves. No, it was the Americans who, upon learning that Peter was getting the shaft from his home country, invited him to stand proudly with them.

Fortunately, Australia did get around to officially apologizing to Peter in a 2012 formal statement. They acknowledged that he should have been sent to Munich in 1972, that he should have been heralded as much as any Olympic winner over the previous 40 years, and that his quiet but assertive stand on racial equality was perhaps not such a bad thing. Unfortunately, Peter never received the apology. He passed away from a heart attack in 2006 at age 64. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were both pallbearers and eulogy deliverers at his funeral.

It was a mighty quiver of unfathomable consequence that erupted from this one small, silent plea for basic human decency. And it makes for one hell of a gut-punching photograph, doesn’t it?

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