An Australian hero only Americans have honoured
Last night the House of Representatives debated a motion to make a posthumous apology to arguably our greatest ever male sprinter Peter Norman, whose legacy is so much greater than just his feats on the track. This is an edited version of a speech to the parliament by the Member for Bennelong John Alexander.
I rise to recognise the unique contribution made by Australian athlete Peter Norman to the worlds of both sport and politics. In sport Norman’s feet did the talking, becoming the highest achieving Australian male sprinter in our nation’s history. In politics, Norman’s statement was not through the delivery of a speech but simply through the wearing of a badge.
The badge said: ‘Olympic Project for Human Rights’. The venue was the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games. The year 1968 is often referred to as the year the world changed - the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy; the raging of the Vietnam War; riots in Paris; industrial strikes across Europe; and uprisings in Czechoslovakia and Pakistan.
In the United States, violence engulfed civil rights protests across the nation. In response, Harry Edwards, famous for his revolutionary musings as Professor in Black Leadership at San Jose State College, formed the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
Blurring the fine line between sport and politics, the OPHR called for the instant dismissal of Avery Brundage as the president of the International Olympic Committee, the banning of competitors from South Africa and Rhodesia, and the reinstatement of Muhammad Ali’s title as world boxing champion.
Talk of protests by athletes at the games was met by threats from Brundage, who claimed that the Olympic Games was not the place for political statement and any action would be met with official sanction.
Two of Harry’s most famous students were outspoken athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who were favourites to win gold and silver in the 200 metres final.
What no-one expected was Australian Peter Norman, who split the two Americans to take out the silver medal. Norman’s time of 20.06 seconds would have won gold at the Sydney Olympics and still stands as the Australian record 44 years later.
No Australian male sprinter has since won an Olympic medal of any description and yet it is a stain on our nation that Peter Norman was immediately ostracised by the Australian media and by athletics officials. Despite running five Olympic qualifying times for the 100 metres and 13 for the 200 metres, the Australian Olympic Committee preferred to send no male sprinters to the 1972 Munich games.
Norman’s crime was to give a silent expression of solidarity to Smith and Carlos. Walking into the Olympic stadium in their black socks with one hand clad in a black glove and the other carrying their running shoes, Smith and Carlos proudly wore OPHR badges as a statement against racism and segregation in the United States.
On the way out to the medal ceremony, Norman spotted another US athlete wearing an OPHR badge and asked if he could borrow it. The simple gesture to wear this badge on the dais as Smith and Carlos raised their fists in protest condemned Norman to never represent Australia again.
(Ed’s note: Since delivering this speech last night Mr Alexander has noted Peter Norman did represent Australia at the 1970 Commonwealth Games and another regional competition, but never at the Olympics.)
The shame for Australia is not limited to the immediate reaction from the media and Australian officials banning Norman from the 1972 games. The further embarrassment is that 32 years after Mexico, as we celebrated with such national pride at the Sydney Olympic Games, Peter Norman received no formal recognition.
Just as Atlanta had done with Muhammad Ali four years earlier, the opening ceremony for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games offered a unique opportunity for national healing, to give our nation a chance to make peace with Peter Norman.
Yet recognition instead came from the US track team with Edward Moses inviting him to join them and Michael Johnson reportedly calling Peter Norman, ‘My hero.’ It is the greatest irony that the most celebrated moment of the Sydney 2000 games was the victory by Cathy Freeman in the 400-metre final.
In 2006, Norman passed away. His impact was so great that the US track and field federation declared the day of his funeral, 9 October 2006, Peter Norman Day. In the most fitting tribute, Tommie Smith and John Carlos travelled to Australia to deliver eulogies and to serve as pallbearers.
I thank the member for Fraser for raising this motion. To Peter Norman’s family, some of whom are present here today, I hope that you can accept our regret at the way Peter was treated and that his recognition did not come during his lifetime. Peter George Norman is truly an Australian legend and deserves to be celebrated by athletes, schoolchildren, historians and politicians across the nation.
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