Sometimes you get to do something in parliament that puts a lump in your throat. Seeing the smile on the face of 91 year-old Thelma Norman after parliament debated my motion about her late son was one of those moments. The other speakers were Melissa Parke, John Alexander, Graham Perrett, Dan Tehan, Rob Oakeshott and Steve Irons. All spoke poignantly about different aspects of Peter Norman’s extraordinary life (click on their names to read their speeches). Here’s mine.
Peter Norman, 20 August 2012
Iconic images emerge from every Olympic Games.
‘Golden girl’ Betty Cuthbert taking home three gold medals in Melbourne.
Kieren Perkins’ stunning performance from lane 8 in Atlanta.
Cathy Freeman carrying Australian and Aboriginal flags after winning the 400m in Sydney.
But perhaps the most powerful image of the modern Olympics is this one.
Life magazine and Le Monde have declared it one of the most influential images of the 20th century.
An image of three brave athletes at the 1968 Mexico City Games making a statement on racial equality.
One of them was Australia’s Peter Norman.
It is Peter Norman’s role in that moment and taking a stand against racial injustice that I want to talk about tonight.
At the 1968 Mexico City Games, Peter Norman ran a time of 20.06 seconds in the men’s 200m final.
Winning the silver medal and in the process setting the Australian record that still stands today.
As recently as the 2000 Olympics, Norman’s time would have won him the gold medal.
But in 1968, it was when the Star Spangled Banner began to play after the medals presentation that Peter Norman became a part of history.
The two Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos stand, heads bowed with one arm raised.
A black glove on the right hand of Smith, Carlos his left.
Their posture and shoelessness symbolising black poverty and racial inequality in the United States.
Sending a powerful message to the world for racial equality.
Prior to the presentation Smith and Carlos told Norman of their plans.
‘I’ll stand with you”, he told them.
Carlos recalled he expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes.
But he didn’t.
“I only saw love”, Carlos said.
On the way to the dais Norman borrowed an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge from white US Rower, Paul Hoffman.
After Carlos forgot his gloves, Norman came up with the idea that the two Americans should share the one pair of gloves.
A protest like this, on a global stage, had never been done before.
At the time, it was electrifying.
Racist slurs were hurled at Smith and Carlos. IOC President Avery Brundage – a man who’d had no difficulty with the Nazi salute being used in the 1936 Olympics – insisted the two be expelled.
In that moment Norman advanced international awareness for racial equality.
He was proud to stand with Smith and Carlos and the three remained lifelong friends.
At his funeral in 2006, Smith and Carlos gave eulogies and were pallbearers.
As for Norman himself, he competed at the 1970 Commonwealth Games, but was not sent to the 1972 Olympics.
Some have said that this was because of his action in 1968. Others say that financial pressures prevented the AOC from sending a full complement of athletes.
What is clear is that in 1972, Norman consistently ran qualifying times for the 100 and 200 metres, but was not sent.
It is also clear that he never complained about his treatment.
Yet he never stopped thinking of himself as a runner. His trainer Ray Weinberg said: ‘he always called me coach’.
32 years later it took an invitation from the United States Olympic team for him to be a part of the 2000 Sydney Games.
The United States Olympic team.
The apparent treatment of Peter Norman is symbolic of the attitude of the late-1960s and early-1970s. The view that sport and politics should not mix.
In the early-1970s, a group of brave protestors took a stand against apartheid in South Africa, interrupting games played by white-only sporting teams.
One of them was my friend, Meredith Burgman, who was sentenced to 2 months in jail for interrupting a rugby game.
History has vindicated those anti-apartheid protestors.
And history has vindicated Peter Norman.
I am grateful that his 91 year-old mother Thelma, his sister Elaine Ambler and her husband Michael can be here today.
Every Olympic Games produces moments of heroism, humanity and humility.
Its motto is Citius, Altius, Fortius – “Swifter, Higher, Stronger”
In 1968, Peter Norman exemplified this.
Swifter because of his record that still stands.
Higher because he stood tall that day.
Stronger because of the guts it took to take a stand.
In the simple act of wearing that badge, Peter Norman showed the world he stood for racial equality.
He showed us that the action of one person can make a difference.
It’s a message that echoes down to us today.
Whether refusing to tolerate a racist joke or befriending a new migrant, each of us can – and all of us should – be a Peter Norman in our own lives.