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Peter Norman

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.

22 Comments

  1. Suzanne Colfax says:

    Dear Mr Leigh
    Thank you for standing and speaking out for Peter Norman, who was a fine example for all to follow.
    I am very pleased that his mother, sister and brother-in-law were there to here you.
    Yours faithfully
    Suzanne Colfax

  2. trish payne says:

    Well done Andrew! A wonderful recognition of courage and a reminder t
    hat politicians matter so much in leading public considerations of the
    values that matter…Glad too that the media noticed and carried this
    important history of Peter Norman and that you incorporated this
    into Hansard and Australian values repaired!

  3. Helen Radoslovich says:

    Thanks for taking this up and for your very simple but powerful statement.

  4. Ronny Low says:

    Thank you highlighting this great person who has not received the public recognition he deserved. It is unfortunate to see that the AOC could not be as noble as he was, refusing to support the motion .

    http://www.watoday.com.au/opinion/political-news/aoc–wont-support-motion-for-controversial-sprinter-20120820-24hh6.html

  5. Eduardo says:

    A small step for the Australian Parliament ,one giant leap for Justice .
    Good on you Andrew, this is justice and helps to make a better world . The apology to Peter Norman was long overdue, moreover, Australians should have received such a fine sportsman and human being with the welcome he deserved in his return from Mexico in 1968. Excluded from representing Australia in a discipline he loved and excelled , he did not whinge, just took it on the chin .
    Maybe one day , say four decades from now, the Australian Parliament will discuss a posthumous apology to Julian Assange for the support that Australia never gave him?

    Thanks you,
    Eduardo
    Hallett Cove
    SA

  6. Mark says:

    Thanks Andrew,

    Recognition for Peter Norman is well overdue, and you did the right thing by raising the issue in Parliament.

    It is a terrible thing when as Australian stands up against oppression, and is dropped by the Australian establishment as an embarrassment, most likely at the request of the US as well as domestic racists. Bravo to you for raising the issue of his due recognition.

    Now how about you ‘man up’ and do not wait 40 years until Julian Assange gets the Consular assistance that he is due, and not a fast track to an American Kangaroo Court via Sweden? If you think the Inner North Lefties admire your stand on Norman, they will go nuts when you stand up for Assange and insist he be offered political asylum in the Australian Embassy.

    Go on – do you have the courage of Peter Norman to stand up to Power, or are you a part of the problem?

    Best,

    Mark
    2601

  7. Eric Meiers says:

    Thanks to Peter Norman

  8. Russell Miles says:

    Dear Dr Leigh, I feel disappointment about you raising this motion. Not that Peter Norman was not deserving of great honour. But that such is only raised now when it is comfortable to do so. I often use Peter Norm’s story in teaching ethics. He made a deliberate choice based on his principles instilled in his upbringing, knowing it would not be popular. Neither he or his family ever complained of his treatment or even sought celebrity. This attitude seems in mark contrast with modern Parliament, with its focus group driven image making, never ruffling feathers. I have to wonder if sporting stars were on message calenders post London Olympic. I only wish Dr Leigh would give public air space to some issue regardless of popularity. If you are like any public fire I have met there wee be something that your own upbringing creates passion that is more important than pre-selection or odor of Party whips. Or is there?

    • trish payne says:

      Dear RussellMiles..I appreciate your sentiment re. on message and fear of public wrath.
      You obviously also appreciate the fine balance drawn between
      acknowledging democratic practice … space for public opinion and the needed passion of political leadership required to change long held
      public views. You suggest perhaps that politicians are not driven by anything
      but popularism and self interest. Easy swipe..a popularly held
      myth that resounds too readily through Australian discourse aided by a media
      that defines the value of political action within this limiting context. I am not without some sympathy for it..and certainly politicians have a
      responsibilty for that view along with others..but you deny very unfairly the passion and the sacrifices made in a multiplicity
      of personal and publc levels that drives wonderful and caring Australians to
      commit to the service of public good that is the foundation of the
      choice so many politicans make.
      l

  9. constantine carluen says:

    well done andrew. i was aware of this image but did not know the backstory behind it. thank you for bringing peter norman to the attention of the mass media.

  10. David Wightman says:

    Dear Andrew,

    Like many Australians, I was alerted to Peter Norman’s story in the tv documentary “Salute”. After his silver medal in 200 metres in the 1968 Mexico, Peter achieved numerous qualifying times for both the 100 and 200 metre events prior to the Munich Olympics in 1972….but the Australian Olympic Committee chose not to send any sprinters to Munich. Peter’s crime was wearing a badge in support of human rights.

    Again at the Sydney Olympics, Peter was overlooked during the opening ceremony in carrying the Olympic torch within the Olympic Stadium prior to Cathy Freeman lighting the Olympic Flame.

    Shame on the Australian Olympic Committee for continuing to deny the true reasons for Peter’s non selection for Munich and for their embarrassment at his courageous act in 1968. You broke Peter’s heart….literally.

    Andrew – stay the course…remember Peter’s courage…make the AOC apologise…and dont give up until they do.

    David

  11. [...] During his speech, Leigh told Parliament: “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. [...]

  12. [...] During his speech, Leigh told Parliament: “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. [...]

  13. [...] During his speech, Leigh told Parliament: “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. [...]

  14. [...] During his speech, Leigh told Parliament: “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. [...]

  15. [...] During his speech, Leigh told Parliament: “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. [...]

  16. [...] During his speech, Leigh told Parliament: “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. [...]

  17. [...] During his speech, Leigh told Parliament: “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. [...]

  18. [...] During his speech, Leigh told Parliament: “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. [...]

  19. [...] During his speech, Leigh told Parliament: “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. [...]

  20. Let me begin with a thank you to Brother
    Norman for standing the ground that his
    Creator gave him to stand on.

    Secondly thank you Andrew for reminding
    the rest of us that we slight Brother
    Norman every time we remember the moment that happened on that awards stand and
    not remember Peter.

    Iwas a decathlete from Univ of NM who didn’t make that olympic. But I will never forget the times and the social
    ambience that surrounded it. Peter had
    the courage that a lot of african Americans as well as non- African Americans still don’t have. I thank
    the Creator for him and you Andrew as
    well.
    African American.

  21. John O'Brien says:

    Andrew, thank you for initiating this motion. You have done Peter Norman and the Parliament a service.