Remembering Peter Norman - Speech, House of Representatives

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 16 OCTOBER 2018

Fifty years ago today, a young Australian did two extraordinary things. At the Mexico City Olympics, Peter Norman won silver in the 200 metres with a time of 20.06 seconds. In the half century since, no Australian has run faster. It is still our national record. But the best was yet to come. As he walked out to the medal ceremony with Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the two African American runners told him they planned to bow their heads and put their fists in the air in support of human rights.

When Carlos revealed their plans he said, 'I expected to see fear in Norman's eyes, but instead I saw love.' Peter Norman told the two athletes, 'I'll stand with you.' He borrowed an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge and pinned it on his chest. The famous photograph shows Peter Norman standing silently alongside the two athletes giving the Black Power salute. When he returned to Australia, Peter Norman should have been treated as a hero for racial equality, but he wasn't. He wasn't highlighted in the 2000 Sydney Olympics' opening ceremony. When he died in 2006, Smith and Carlos were among his pallbearers.

In 2012 I moved a motion that parliament apologise to Peter Norman for the way in which he'd been treated upon his return. It was passed unanimously. Melissa Parke, Rob Oakeshott and the members for Wannon, Bennelong, Swan and Moreton spoke in favour of the motion. It enjoyed strong bipartisan support. It was a particular pleasure to me that Peter's mother, Thelma Norman, sister, Elaine Ambler, and her husband, Michael, could be here to listen to the national parliament acknowledge Peter Norman's great achievements.

I pay tribute now to the Australian Olympic Committee, which has, somewhat belatedly, begun to recognise the heroism of Peter Norman, not just his athleticism but his stance for racial equality. Peter Norman will be honoured with the striking of a bronze statue at the Lakeside Stadium in Melbourne, a partnership of Athletics Australia and the Victorian government. It is a project that's been championed by Peter's coach, Neville Sillitoe, now in his 90s.

Earlier this year, the Australian Olympic Committee announced a posthumous Order of Merit, which was presented to members of Peter's family in June of this year. Athletics Australia has adopted 9 October as Peter Norman Day. They have inaugurated the Peter Norman Humanitarian Award. The inaugural recipient, most fittingly, is two times Olympian distance runner Eloise Wellings for her work with the Love Mercy Foundation, which undertakes charitable work in Uganda.

Peter Norman's family has been touched not only by his athleticism but also by his stance for racial equality. His daughter Janita said:

My father was someone who held strong beliefs and who spoke his mind and yet it’s the image of him standing there silently on the podium that has made such an impact on our lives.

You can't help but look at the young Peter Norman standing there silently without thinking of the impact it's had on the lives of so many Australians.

When he returned from Mexico City, he had an influence on my own family. It was only after the parliamentary apology was passed that my dad told me about our own family connection to Peter Norman. My grandfather, Keith Leigh, was a marathon runner and a minister at Rosanna Methodist Church. When Peter Norman returned, Keith invited him to speak from the pulpit about racial equality and the events in Mexico City. I never got to meet my grandfather, but my dad said that not everybody in the somewhat staid Rosanna Methodist Church congregation appreciated the gesture of having a Salvation Army member speaking to them from the pulpit!

Peter Norman's actions continue to inspire. After parliament passed the apology, a Queensland teacher wrote to me about a project that his class had engaged in. He had asked students in the class to think about when they could have Peter Norman moments in their own lives, where they could take a stance for racial equality, speaking out against an off-colour joke, saying the right thing when you know it's not going to be popular with the group.

On this 50th anniversary of Peter Norman's blisteringly fast run and extraordinary stance for racial equality, it is fitting that this parliament stands tall for our apology for the way he was treated six years ago and recognises his extraordinary achievement as a great national champion for racial equality.

ENDS

Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra


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