Peter Norman

Today you take 20 seconds to wash your hands due to the COVID-19 virus. 

In 1968, Peter Norman used the same 20 seconds to run 200 meters. 20.17 seconds to be precise. 

He became a silver medal in the 68 Olympics in México, but he became more than a silver medalist.

Peter was representing his country, Australia.

He was already the fastest man in Oceania on that distance. Moreover, he had previously taken part in the Commonwealth Games. 

He was so fast that before the Olimpic final, during the heats, Peter set a new Olimpic record. 

In the finals, the American Tommie Smith was too strong and was the first to make 200 meters under 20 seconds, setting a new Olimpic and World record. John Carlos, another member of the American team, came in third.

Both Smith and Carlos were founding members of the Olimpic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). With the sociologist Harry Eduards the OPHR was an organization that protested against racial segregation in the United States and elsewhere (such as South Africa or Rhodesia) and racism in sports in general.

The OPHR defended a boycott of the 1968 Olympic games. The boycott didn’t go forward, but that didn’t mean they could not express themselves in other ways.

And indeed they did!

At the podium, they made a stand. Almost 50 years before Colin Kaepernick took a knee raising awareness for the fight against racism, these 3 Olympians did it at the grandest stage. When The Star-Spangled Banner started, the two Americans were without their black shoes, wearing black socks, representing poverty. When the anthem ended, silently, each of them raised a black-gloved fist in protest with their heads bowed in respect and with faith. Tommie raised his right fist, “symbolizing the power within black America,” while John Carlos’s left fist signified black unity.” Tommie wore a black scarf for blackness, and John wore beads around his neck to honor victims of lynching.

All three athletes were wearing the OPHR badge, making it clear that Peter Norman was part of the protest. By the end, there was booing for the three athletes in the stadium. The raised fist with the black glove was seen as the black panther salute, a group responsible for some deaths in the United States.

This protest was a scandal for a society going through many changes, namely in human rights.

Australia was significantly influenced by American culture and was going through changes in how they related with other races, like the aborigines, in Australia.  

Before the ceremony, Tommie and John asked Peter if he believed in Human Rights to what Peter answered immediately and with a courageous resolution, Yes!

Peter gave John and Tommie the idea of sharing the gloves since John Carlos had forgotten his pair at the hotel and asked for an OPHR badge for him to wear.

As a direct result, on that day, these athletes’ careers ended.

The next day Tommie and John were suspended and had to leave Mexico. 

For the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Peter Norman qualified thirteen times for the 200 meters and five times for the 100 meters. However, he was not called for the national team and never participated again in the Olympic Games. With his qualifying times, he would have been a gold medalist at the Munich Olympic Games.  

Peter and his family were ostracized in Australia. He worked as a butcher during his life amidst other small jobs.

During the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Peter Norman was invited by the American Olympic team to be part of it because his own country would not ask him. 

Another result of him taking that stand was two friendships for life. Peter, Tommie, and John became friends until the end. 

In 2006 when Peter passed away, John and Tommie were pallbearers for him.

In 2012, finally, the Australian Government issued a posthumous

apology to Peter Norman.

Peter could have had a great life if he had condemned his two friends’ protest; this was proposed to him. He never even considered it for a second. Peter claimed more than once that was his proudest moment in life and that he genuinely believed in what he did there on that day. 

If there was any doubt, the apology that came in 2012 proves that Peter was right 50 years before people could see it. He sacrificed much of himself and his family, but there is absolutely no doubt that he was on the right side of history. 

To do the right thing is very hard most of the time, but the white guy in the picture, as Peter called himself, never had a moment of doubt about himself or what he had to do.

And he did it!

To this day, the Oceania record for the 200 meters still belongs to Peter Norman.

They were humans before they were athletes; that is why they chose to use that stage to protest. Peter as an athlete, was a record holder, but what he achieved as a human being was far more critical for us as a society.