Monday, May 7, 2012

Pete Norman - The Third Man in the Photograph

The clenched fist salutes of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico is one of the defining images from a year of global protest. Despite its ubiquity it has lost none of its extraordinary power. Muhammad Ali, who knew a thing or two about both the Olympics and racism in the United States, said that it was “the single most courageous act of the century.”

Like thousands of others, a poster version of John Domini’s famous photograph hangs on my wall. But for a long time I was puzzled. Who was the third figure on the rostrum? And what did he make of this unique protest? In the picture he seems to stand somewhat awkwardly, staring into the distance as the flags are hoisted at the end of the medal ceremony. With his mouth ever so slightly open, frozen in the blink of a shutter, it is difficult to tell if he is even aware of Smith and Carlos, or whether he is awestruck by the 100,000 people crammed into the Aztec Stadium. For all I knew he could have been a racist, utterly disgusted by the events unfolding around him, lost in a reverie of his own bigotry.

The man in question was the Australian sprinter Pete Norman, silver medallist in the men’s 200m. In the stadium tunnel where the athletes were held before being led on to the field, the American pair revealed their plan to Norman, which the Australian fully endorsed. On discovering that Carlos had left his pair of gloves in the Olympic village it was Norman who suggested that the Americans should each wear one of Smith’s remaining pair. He also offered to wear an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge as a gesture of support. Norman recalled:
“As we were going out on to the track, Paul Hoffman, the cox of the US rowing eight, came over to congratulate the guys. The rowing team was supporting the African-American guys. Paul, who is white, had his badge on. As Paul reached over to shake hands with John, while John had his right hand clenched, he reached across with his left hand and undid Paul’s badge. He then pinned it on my tracksuit. I proudly wore it on the stand.”
The American athletes were delighted to have Norman’s support. “Here was a guy,” said John Carlos, “from the other side of the world showing he believed in humanity, in love, and in God, and that showed his character.” Yet the mood was quickly soured. The stand taken by the black athletes drew almost instantaneous condemnation from Olympic officials and those opposed to the struggle for civil rights in the United States. Following pressure from Avery Brundage, the IOC president infamous for his racist and anti-Semitic views, the US Olympic Committee suspended Smith and Carlos. Time magazine ran a front page of the Olympic rings with the headline “Angrier, Nastier, Uglier”. Both men would receive death threats and see their families targeted as a result of their actions.

Amidst the ensuing furore and media scrum Norman not only defended the clenched fist salutes but also went on the attack, criticising the Australian government’s treatment of Aboriginal peoples and their ‘White Australia’ immigration policies. “I couldn’t see why anyone would dislike or hate someone simply because they were a different colour. Colour doesn’t matter. Nationality doesn’t matter.” His anti-racism brought him the respect of black athletes throughout the United States. Norman was the only white competitor invited to the inaugural Martin Luther King International Freedom Games in 1969.

Subsequently Norman found himself ostracized by the Australian athletics officialdom. It didn’t help that his behaviour seemed unusually erratic. Off the track he had begun an affair and drifted increasingly away from the Salvation Army, which had been such a big part of his early life. On the track things went from bad to worse. After being awarded second place in the Victoria 100m championships in 1972 – a race that he had clearly won - Norman threw his silver medal at the chief judge. Later in the season Norman was left out of the Australia squad for the Munich Olympics. Despite carrying a niggling knee injury, there was no discernable reason to overlook a fit-enough Pete Norman, who was, after all, Australia’s only Olympic sprint medal winner. Norman had no doubts that the decision had little to do with athletics:
“I earned the frowning eyes of the powers-that-be by misbehaving at the state championships when I honestly thought I’d won the state 100m title. That, plus the fact that I’d, would you say, misbehaved at my previous Olympics, gave the selectors a good opportunity to leave me home.”
Pete Norman retired immediately. The pressures of international fame and the sheer hard work involved in competing in top level athletics contributed to the separation of Norman from his first wife, Ruth, in 1972. The painful wrench stretched family loyalties to breaking point and, as so often happens, impacted most upon the couple’s children. After leaving his job as a teacher and suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon he fell into a cycle of alcoholism and depression.

Only in the last few years of his life did Norman find anything resembling contentment. Tentative steps towards reconciliation with his children were attempted. Australian sporting authorities righted some of their previous wrongs, inducting Norman into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1999. As the Sydney Olympics approached, Norman was invited to carry the Olympic torch across Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge.

Pete Norman died in 2006. Two of the pallbearers at his funeral were Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

Smith and Carlos are rightly remembered as the men whose courage and dignity produced an unparalleled gesture of defiance. History should also record that Pete Norman played his own small part, not as a bystander in a picture, but as an example of unity and solidarity. As the self-effacing Norman said, "I didn't raise a fist, but I lent a hand."

Coda: Since Pete Norman's nephew, Matt Norman, has been in contact I thought I'd add a couple of bits of information. The quotes in the post are taken from the book, "A Race to Remember: The Pete Norman Story", by Matt Norman and Damian Johnstone. I have no doubt that, should you be interested, Bookmarks should be able to lay their hands on a copy for you. Also, Matt has directed a film telling the story of Smith, Carlos and Norman at the 1968 Olympics which will be released in the UK in July this year. You can find details at www.salutethemovie.com.