Twelve years after his death at age sixty-four and a half-century after he stood on a Mexico City Olympic medal podium in unblinking solidarity with Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Australian sprinter Peter Norman is finally getting his due. The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) recently awarded Norman a posthumous "Order of Merit," a designation meant to praise athletes who achieved "remarkable merit in the sporting world."
"This is an overdue award... The respect for Peter and his actions is still enormous to this day," said AOC president John Coates. "We lost Peter in 2006 but we should never lose sight of his brave stand."
Norman won the silver medal in that legendary 200-meter race at the 1968 Olympics and then, in arguably the most globally famous athletic photograph ever taken, he stood next to Smith and Carlos--winners of the gold and bronze metals, respectively--as they raised their black-gloved fists during the U.S. national anthem. While Smith and Carlos made their stance of dissent, Norman was ramrod straight and wore a button that read, "Olympic Project for Human Rights."
Norman stood in solidarity as a white man against racism during a time when Australia's racial policies were brutally retrograde. But he came from a family of Salvation Army workers and was raised on the social gospel, believing that religion should be used as a means to pursue social justice.
When Norman returned home to Australia, he did not receive a hero's welcome. Instead, he found himself ostracized despite winning the silver, the highest finish for an Australian sprinter in Olympic history. John Carlos has told me, in conversations over the years, "I always felt like Peter Norman, after those Olympics, had it tougher than Tommie or me because in the United States they took turns kicking our asses. In Australia, Peter was on his own."
Incredibly, Norman was left off Australia's 1972 Olympic team, despite his myriad accomplishments. When Australia hosted the Olympics in 2000, he was on the outside looking in, with regard to all the festivities. The Australian Olympic Committee has denied that they consciously shut Norman out, but he was so isolated that the U.S. track and field team offered him lodging so he could at least be connected up-close to the games.
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