It was a historic moment. I had seen the photo in many books on Olympics – a fascination of my teens. Most of the photos only featured Tommie Smith and John Carlos in their epic Black Power salute, fists in black gloves, thrust indignantly in air, and their heads bowed down, feet bare. I did not fully understand the significance of the photo then, but it exuded a sign of defiance, just as did the photo of the lone protester in front of the tank in Tiananmen square. Knowing about the Civil Rights Movement, the enormity of the protest became clearer. It was one of the momentous photos of the twentieth century, a photo that makes time stand still, a photo made me speechless, in anger, in solidarity and respect.
But the media is a weird thing. They go at great lengths obscuring the complete picture and only represent the distorted version to suit them and their reader base. And thus, the story of Peter Norman, another legend who was as much part of the protest as was the two Americans, remained out of the limelight. He remained “The other white man” in that iconic photo. Nearly 50 years later, his record still remains an Australian record for 200m sprint. Yet, Norman was shunned in his own country for donning the badge Smith and Carlos wore during their salute, and never represented Australia in Olympics again. It took Australian Parliament to officially apologise for their discrimination that ruined the career of one of their greatest sporting heroes.
Apart from the record books, Peter Norman was not known to me until today. Yet, his enormous athletic achievement during the final race was eclipsed by what he did on that award ceremony. On that day, he stood up for humanity, he stood up for a cause that he believed in, against injustice, only to go back home in ignominy and shame.
The main article from Griotmag is shared here, featuring Peter Norman, The white man in that photo1
Once the famous poet Tagore dedicated this song to the Indian freedom fighter, Subhash Bose:
If they answer not to your call walk alone
If they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall,
O thou unlucky one,
open your mind and speak out alone.
If they turn away, and desert you when crossing the wilderness,
O thou unlucky one,
trample the thorns under thy tread,
and along the blood-lined track travel alone.
If they shut doors and do not hold up the light when the night is troubled with storm,
O thou unlucky one,
with the thunder flame of pain ignite your own heart,
and let it burn alone.
On that epic day in Mexico City in 1968, three young sprinters stood up in solidarity for the oppression of the black Americans. They knew what awaits them once they came off that podium. Smith and Carlos later became a champion for their cause as the USA embraced diversity following the Civil Rights Movement. Norman remained a pariah even after his death, the retribution of the AOC still denying his due respect. But they were well aware of their fate and decided to stand for what they believed in. In the words of Tagore, they trod on the blood-lined track alone, for humanity, for a balanced society, for a better world. They are inspirations to millions, who believe in a cause, yet, don’t stand up for it against the whole world. They made us believe that if we stand by our ideas and beliefs, and if the whole world does not agree, stand firm still in defiance to the world, and it will change, if not in our lifetime, but one day2…So let’s not forget Peter Norman, the unsung hero of the Olympics Black Power salute, so his sacrifice of a lifetime does not disappear into oblivion.
1. The original article by Italian writer Riccardo Gazzaniga L’uomo bianco in quella foto.
2. Australian Parliament issued an apology for their discrimination against Peter Norman. Australian Olympic Committee, however, refused the claims and in fact asked for a retraction and apology from the author and the magazine retraction and apology from the author and the magazine