The Story Of The Olympic Athlete Who Was Shunned For Standing Up For His Beliefs

Posted by Michael Avery in Sports On 17th October 2015

Peter Norman chose to support his peers in 1968 but it effectively ended his Olympic career immediately and he was treated as an outcast until the day he died.

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47 years ago, on October 16, 1968, the medals ceremony at the Mexico Olympics was converted into a symbolic demonstration of the struggle against oppression.

US black sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos, respectively first and third in the men's 200 metres, defiantly raised clenched fist salutes as the American national anthem played. Their stand in support of civil rights and against racism reverberated internationally. The photograph of their protest has become one of the most recognised images in the world, after that of the first moon landing.

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The unexpected silver medalist, 26-year-old Australian Peter Norman, wore a button of the "Olympic Project for Human Rights"a civil rights protest movement set up by black athlete Harry Edwards before the Gamesin support of his two fellow athletes.

Norman died on October 3 2006 of a heart attack. In a moving tribute, Smith and Carlos flew to Australia to deliver eulogies at his funeral in Melbourne on October 9. They recounted how they asked him, as they walked through the tunnel to the medals ceremony, whether he supported them in the action they intended to take. Norman replied that he agreed with human rights for everybody and would stand with them.

As a well-wisher leant over the barrier to shake Smith's hand, the three athletes asked him for his Olympic project badge. Norman pinned it on and wore it in support of the demonstration on the dais. Norman told reporters at Mexico: "I believe in civil rights. Every man is born equal and should be treated that way."

Carlos told mourners: "Not every young white individual would have the gumption, the nerve, the backbone to stand there. Peter never flinched. He never turned his eyes, he never turned his head. He never said so much as ‘ouch'. You guys have lost a great soldier."

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Norman's funeral became a poignant reaffirmation of the significance of that day. The dignified presence of Smith and Carlos underlined the trio's principled stand in 1968. As they led the pallbearers in carrying out his coffin, accompanied by the theme from "Chariots of Fire", Smith and Carlos demonstrated an enduring bond of international friendship and solidarity.

The effect on all those present was palpable. As Norman's wife Jan reflected later: "It felt as though he would sit up in his coffin and say that he agreed with this."

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The period 1968 to 1975 was tumultuous. It saw mass movements of workers in country after country, including the United States and Australia. During the 1960s, riots had rocked US cities. Six months before the Mexico Olympics, Martin Luther King's assassination provoked further unrest across America. In May-June 1968, French workers staged a general strike that almost brought down the De Gaulle government.

The demonstration on the podium was bound up with the experiences that the three young athletes underwent as part of these upheavals, and the radicalisation that occurred among young people around the world. All three came from working class backgrounds.

In contrast to the current glorification of individualism and financial success, where talented athletes are turned into high-priced commodities, they stood on principle at the Olympicsand paid for it. The US Olympic Committee, under pressure from the international body, expelled Smith and Carlos from the Games. Their lives and careers in international athletics were blighted from then on.

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