Clenched Fists, Helping Hand

By Mike Wise
Thursday, October 5, 2006

The night he ran the race of his life, Peter Norman was told by the other 200-meter medalists that they would be making a political statement during the medal ceremony. Two black American sprinters were about to raise their clenched fists toward the heavens and bow their heads as "The Star-Spangled Banner" blared through a stunned stadium. Norman was a white Australian, living in a country where change comes embarrassingly slowly, where Aborigines were not allowed to vote in federal elections until 1962 and were not counted in the national census until 1967. What would you do?

"I did the only thing I believed was right," Norman said over a beer six years ago. "I asked what they wanted me to do to help."

The third man on the podium in Mexico City died on Tuesday of a heart attack. Peter Norman was 64. But he will remain 26 in the mind's eye, with shaggy brown locks and a solemn stare. He was part of that indelible image from the 1968 Games -- the photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos using their black power salutes to further the civil rights cause at home.

When Carlos was reached in Palm Springs, Calif., yesterday morning he said he was "just hurtin' " from the news. "Peter was a piece of my life," he said. "When I got the call, it knocked the wind out of me. I was his brother. He was my brother. That's all you have to know."

Norman not only wore a human-rights badge in support of the two that night, but in an interview years later he told me he actually came up with the idea to split Smith's black gloves in the athletes' lounge, so both at least had one to cover their fists.

Many of us were children or not yet born, but there was a time when having a social conscience superseded personal wealth and popularity in sports, a time when empowerment among elite athletes had nothing to do with economics. You either believed in a cause and took action or you hushed up. In 1968, against the wish of his own nation, Peter Norman did something.

"Any other white guy, I don't think he would have had the courage to go through with it," Carlos said yesterday. "Our lives were threatened. We were being demonized in the media. People were saying we wanted the destruction of society instead of what we really wanted, equal rights. I just don't think most white individuals would not have been strong enough to make that commitment.

"At least me and Tommie had each other when we came home," he added. "When Peter went home, he had to deal with a nation by himself. He never wavered, never denied that he was up there with us for a purpose and he never said 'I'm sorry' for his involvement. That's indicative of who the man was."

I spent a good hour with Norman in the Olympic Village in 2000, a week before the Sydney Games. He tugged on a cigarette and chugged a glass of Victoria Bitters, a golden-colored Australian ale. He spoke of his life since 1968, how one moment had profoundly altered everything. His recall after the race was incredibly vivid.

"From there, we walked into the athletes' lounge and began combing our hair and prettying ourselves up for the ceremony," he remembered. "Tommie and John were talking about what they were going to do. They involved me in the conversation. It wasn't as if they were having a secret huddle. They were letting me know."

Wanting to show his solidarity, Norman asked Carlos if he had another human-rights badge like the one the two Americans planned to wear over their hearts.

"If I get you one, will you wear it?" Carlos asked.

"I sure would," Norman said.

The badge, about three inches wide, said "Olympic Project for Human Rights," the words outlined by a green laurel wreath. Norman had been raised in the Salvation Army church -- he referred to himself as a "fifth-generation Salvo" -- and was keenly aware of the ugly racial climate in America in the late 1960s. The Mexico City Games took place months after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

"I couldn't see why a black man wasn't allowed to drink out of the same water fountain or sit in the same bus or go to the same schools as a white guy," Norman said. "That was just social injustice that I couldn't do anything about from where I was, but I certainly abhorred it."

Norman also recalled an almost surreal detail before the medal ceremony. "The guys probably don't even remember, but it was my suggestion that they split Tommie's gloves," Norman said.

Go ahead, look at the photo again. Smith, the right glove around his clenched fist, and Carlos, with the left glove, are raising opposite hands toward the sky. "That's why he had the left hand and I had the right," Smith told me in 2000.

Improbable, no, an Aussie helping hatch the plan for the black-power salute?

Norman was reprimanded by the Australian Olympic Committee the day after the incident and ostracized by the media in his homeland. During the 2000 Sydney Games, it was a crime that there was so little mention of the last Australian male sprinter to medal. You had to take a train through a downtown Aboriginal community before a large photo of the 1968 medal ceremony emerged, plastered on the side of a house, under the words, "Three Proud Men."

No one knew, for instance, that Norman never ran faster than the 20.06 seconds that night in the 200 meters, that he came home and fathered two daughters and about 10 years ago survived gangrene and the near amputation of his right leg from a running injury. They never knew that his friendship with Smith and Carlos grew into a genuine bond. Both plan to attend the funeral and memorial service in Melbourne on Monday. He last saw them during the unveiling of a statue at San Jose State last year, commemorating the event, where Carlos's children called the sun-bleached Australian, "Uncle Pete."

Peter Norman, who came to Mexico City as merely an Olympian and left as a participant in history during the tumult of the 1960s, is survived by family -- including the two brothers he stood beside proudly that night on the podium.

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