Peter Norman was a white Australian who was ostracised in his homeland and barred from the 1972 Olympic Games in Germany for backing Black Power. Forty-five years on, with NFL players damned in recent days as “sons of bitches” by the president of the United States, the nephew of a forgotten hero knows that he would have taken a knee, too.
The Black Power salute on the 200 metres sprint podium in Mexico City, 1968, is resonating through modern America. For a year, some NFL players have been kneeling during the national anthem in protest at racial inequality. On Sunday the protest came to Wembley Stadium when 27 players from the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars joined together for the largest show of solidarity to date. Most white players chose to stand but linked arms with their team-mates.
Donald Trump had already attacked America’s footballers for disrespecting their flag. “This has nothing to do with race,” he claimed in a jingoistic address. The president then called for fans to boycott games and for owners to fire players.
For a president to look down his nose at social issues proves we have not come far since 1968
Matt Norman knows how hard it can be to protest and make the deaf and blind understand the reasons. His uncle was second in the 200 metres at the 1968 Olympics, and wore a badge in support of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) to receive his medal. On the same podium two black American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised clenched fists in protest at the twisted prejudice of segregated America. All three wondered if they would be shot. Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee and a Nazi sympathiser, threatened to disqualify the entire US team unless the pair were sent home. They were. Smith was sacked from his job washing cars. His mother received rats in the mail and died of a heart attack soon afterwards. Carlos’s wife committed suicide.
Smith and Carlos were eventually rehabilitated as civil rights icons and received honorary doctorates, but the persecution of Norman lasted all the way until his death in 2006.
“I think Peter’s story is very important right now,” his nephew said.
“These NFL players are making a statement and what Trump has not done is to stop to ask, ‘What is your problem and how can we fix it?’ That’s exactly what happened in 1968. Black America had to put up with so much then and the problem now is Trump does not actually show any presidential support for the issues. He criticises people for standing up for their rights.
“One of the worst things he has done is call them ‘sons of bitches’. Go talk to those players’ mothers and say that. For a president to look down his nose at social issues proves we have not come far since 1968.”
Peter Norman’s time at the Olympics would have won gold in 1972 in Munich. He was the fifth fastest man in the world, and had reached the qualifying standard 15 times. Australia refused to take him, saying that it was down to a slow run on the day of the trials when he had a heel injury. He was not invited to the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, although his time from 1968 is still the Australian record.
No matter how many times I asked him if he would do it again, he always said, ‘Of course I would’
Even in 2012, when the Australian government issued a posthumous apology and acknowledged his bravery and the injustice of the snub, the Australian Olympic Committee disputed the facts.
Carlos simply said in response: “There’s no one in the nation of Australia that should be appreciated more . . . than Peter Norman for his willingness to be a sacrificial lamb for justice.”
Matt Norman, who is making a Hollywood feature film about his uncle, empathises with the disenfranchised NFL players. “Pete spent the rest of his life being dragged through the mud,” he said. “Even today a lot of people don’t know there was an Australian on that podium.
“His career went downhill quickly. He got an injury and turned to alcohol. He was never as happy as he should have been from 1968. Yet the one thing that stood out for me was that, no matter how many times I asked him if he would do it again, he always said, ‘Of course I would’.”
Colin Kaepernick, then of the San Francisco 49ers, started the NFL protest when he said that he would not “stand up to show pride in a flag or country that oppresses black people and people of colour”. His words were almost identical to those used by Peter Norman.
Norman was on his own whereas at least NFL players can feel safer in numbers and have the backing of the league’s commissioner and assorted owners. Inevitably there are those who pigeon-hole the privileged and want sports stars to be a silent minority. Trump, Brundage and Australia all fell behind the disrespect defence. Half a century on from that podium, the rich and powerful are still trying to knock protesters off their pedestal.
Matt Norman says that his uncle’s role in the Black Power salute went far beyond suggesting Smith and Carlos wear one glove each when Carlos forgot his pair, or backing the OPHR, which had grown from a potential black boycott of Mexico. Smith and Carlos would show their respect when they were pall-bearers at his funeral.
“He loved Tommie and John like brothers,” Norman said. “He spent so much time going over to the USA to celebrate their achievements, not his own.
“What he did that day was quite remarkable. When sports people take a stand against injustice they are putting themselves at risk of persecution. They are doing something selfless, not for themselves but for a greater cause.
“People who are leaders need to stand up, too. If we could get politicians to do what our sportsmen and women do, then the world would be a different place.”
NFL chief proud of his sport’s stand
Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, said that he was proud to see the league’s players deliver a defiant message to President Trump on Sunday, with more protests during the American national anthem. Last Friday, Trump called those who had knelt or raised fists for the Star-Spangled Banner over perceived racial injustice “sons of bitches” and said that they should be fired by team owners. Rather than deter players, there were widespread protests two days later.
Goodell told Sports Illustrated’s Monday Morning Quarterback column: “The way we reacted this weekend made me proud. I’m proud of our league. [The demonstrations] reflected the frustration, the disappointment of the players over the divisive rhetoric we heard.”