The Australian sprinter whose career was killed by the 'Black Power' podium protest

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter run at the 1968 Olympic Games, engage in a victory stand protest against unfair treatment of blacks in the United States. With heads lowered and black-gloved fists raised in the black power salute, they refuse to recognize the American flag and national anthem. Australian Peter Norman is the silver medalist.
US athletes Tommie Smith, centre, and John Carlos, right, raise their fists in protest on the podium in Mexivo City in 1968, behind Australian sprinter Peter Norman, left. Source: Getty Images

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It is a moment that will live on in Olympic history, perhaps more so than any race.

On this day 53 years ago, US track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a "Black Power" salute.

But there was a third man on the podium that day in Mexico City on 16 October, 1968.

Australian sprinter Peter Norman, who had finished in second place in the 200m, sandwiched in between Smith who won gold and Carlos who took bronze, supported the American runners’ cause.

All three athletes wore human rights badges on their jackets when collecting their medals, and it was Norman who suggested that Smith and Carlos wear a black glove each after the latter left his pair in the Olympic village.

American athlete Tommie Smith (3rd R), wearing black socks, jubilates after crossing the finish line of the men's 200m final ahead of Australian Peter Norman (2nd L) and compatriot John Carlos (4th L) during the Mexico Olympic Games, on October 16, 1968. 2nd R is French Roger Bambuck. (Photo by - / EPU / AFP)        (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
US athlete Tommie Smith, third right, celebrates after winning the men's 200m at the 1968 Mexico Olympics ahead of Australian Peter Norman, second left, and fellow American John Carlos, fourth left. Source: AFP/Getty Images
Tommy Smith (307) (1st place) and John Carlos (259) (3rd place) of the US raise their fists as the stand on the Olympic podium
Peter Norman, left, did not raise his fist, but supported the protest of Tommie Smith, centre, and John Carlos, right. Source: Getty Images

Norman had been a critic of his nation’s former White Australia Policy and was sympathetic to the US pair’s demonstration.

Although he did not raise his fist, he stood with his fellow athletes. Norman asked how he could support them, and Smith and Carlos suggested he wear a badge for the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a group the two African-Americans had helped establish which protested against racial segregation in the US and in South Africa, and against racism in sports.

Smith and Carlos raised their gloved fists to the air during the playing of the US national anthem, a gesture that made news around the world.

US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr had been assassinated earlier that year and racial tensions were high back home.

Peter Norman smiles  at Williamstown Beach.
Former Australian Olympic sprinter Peter Norman at Williamstown Beach, Melbourne, in January 2000. Source: Getty Images
A photo taken in Melbourne on October 8, 2018, shows a man walking past a giant mural of Australian runner Peter Norman with US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
A photo of a mural in Melbourne taken in October 2018 depicting the salute. Source: AFP via Getty Images

The pair were booed by the crowd - who shouted racist abuse - and suspended from the US team by the International Olympic Committee, which also ejected them from the athletes’ village.

On their return home to the US, they were abused and their families received death threats. Both Smith and Carlos continued with careers in sport - going into the NFL and athletics coaching.

In his autobiography, published three decades after the gesture, Smith revised his statement that the salute was about “Black Power”, saying it was instead about “human rights”.

Norman was also ostracised. Despite making the qualifying time on several occasions, Australia did not select him for their Olympic team in 1972. His time of 20.06 seconds in the final in Mexico City remains an Oceanian record.

Carlos once said: “If we were getting beat up, Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.”

Norman played Australian Rules football during the 1970s before contracting gangrene after tearing his achilles tendon in a charity race in 1985, which almost led to him losing his leg. He suffered depression, alcoholism and an addiction to painkillers in the aftermath. He reportedly used his Olympic silver medal as a doorstop during this time.

When Sydney hosted the Olympics in 2000, his achievement and stance was not recognised by his home country, so the US invited him to take part in its celebrations.

Norman worked as a sports administrator for Athletics Australia until 2006, when he died of a heart attack in Melbourne at the age of 64.

The US Track and Field Federation called 9 October 2006, the date of his funeral, Peter Norman Day, something later adopted by Australia.

John Carlos, left, and Tommie Smith, both San Jose State University alumni, 1968 Olympic medalists, and activists, talk as they wait for the unveiling ceremony to start at San Jose State University in San Jose, California
Former US athletes John Carlos, left, and Tommie Smith, at their former college, San Jose State University, in 2005 for the unveiling of a statue dedicated to their protest. Source: Getty Images
Athletes Tommie Smith, (left) and John Carlos carry Peter Norman's casket from the Williamstown Town Hall on 9th October, 2006
Former US athletes Tommie Smith, left, and John Carlos, right, carry Peter Norman's coffin at his funeral in Williamstown, Australia, on 9 October, 2006. Source: Getty Images

Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral and delivered eulogies for the man who stood alongside them on that podium four decades previously.

In 2012, the Australian House of Representatives apologised for the country’s treatment of Norman, and MP Andrew Leigh told its Parliament that the athlete’s gesture in 1968 “was a moment of heroism and humility that advanced international awareness of racial inequality”.

In 2018, Norman was posthumously awarded the Australian Olympic Committee’s Order of Merit for the protest.

A photo taken in Melbourne on October 9, 2018, shows a man holding a banner commemorating Australian runner Peter Norman
Peter Norman's contribution was finally recognised in Australia after his death. Source: AFP/Getty Images
Overall view of statue on campus of the Mexico City 1968 Olympic Games San Jose State University Student-Athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood for Justice, Dignity, Equality and Peace. July 18, 2021, at San Jose State University.
A statue dedicated to the salute at San Jose State University. Source: PA
Detailed view of statue where fellow athlete Australian Peter Norman stood for the Mexico City 1968 Olympic Games San Jose State University Student-Athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood for Justice, Dignity, Equality and Peace. July 18, 2021, at San Jose State University
Australian sprinter Peter Norman asked for his space on the statue at San Jose State University to be left empty so visitors could stand in and feel what he experienced in 1968. Source: PA

AOC president John Coates said: “We’ve been negligent in not recognising the role he played back then.”

A statue of Norman was unveiled on 9 October 2019 at the Albert Park athletics track in Melbourne.

In 2000, Norman told the New York Times: “I won a silver medal. But really, I ended up running the fastest race of my life to become part of something that transcended the Games.”

In 2005, San Jose State University, where Smith and Carlos had been students, unveiled a 22-ft high statue recreating the pair’s protest.

There is no figure of the Australian athlete on the podium - but this is not an oversight.

Norman asked that his space on the statue be left empty so visitors could stand in his position and experience what he felt on that day in Mexico City 53 years ago.

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