Peter Norman was born June 15, 1942 near Melbourne, Australia. He was raised in a strong Christian family by parents that were Salvation Army missionaries. His parents were poor and growing up there wasn’t enough money to afford the gear necessary to play his favorite sport, Australian Rules Football. As a teenager Peter’s father was able to find used track spikes. Peter was elated and began his track career.
Peter’s Christian upbringing was essential in the development of the man he became. A little background on the doctrine of the Salvation Army is essential. In 1865 William Booth took his version of Christianity to the streets, the poor, the destitute. By 1878 his East London Christian Mission was noted as a volunteer army. Not liking the sound of that he penned salvation in place of volunteer and the Salvation Army was borne. The mission statement of the Salvation Army is 3 fold:
1- message is the Bible
2- ministry is motivated by the love of God
3- mission is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and meet human needs without discrimination.
Peter had developed into a fine runner, the finest in Australia prior to the 1968 Olympics. He was the top 100/200 runner in Australia but felt his best event was the 200m with a time of 20.6 at the Australian Olympic trials. However, he was not well known on the world stage and not even in the discussion for a medal. But when he arrived in Mexico City at the Estadio Olimpico Universitario, Peter ran consistently good times through to the finals. He exploded in the first heat winning with a 20.17(setting a national and short lived Olympic record). He won his quarterfinal heat in 20.44 and was second to John Carlos in the semis in 20.22. In typical Norman fashion he yelled across to Carlos, “You can have that one!” Carlos just waved him off indignantly. The final was a phenomenal race with a late surge by Peter, squeaking by Carlos at the tape in 20.06 for the Silver medal(and a national record that still stands today). Tommie Smith ‘jetted’ down the backstretch to the Gold in a new Olympic, National and World record in 19.86. John Carlos content with what he thought was a Silver shut it down a hair early and accepted the Bronze.
Prior to the Olympics there was much rhetoric and public fighting over a possible boycott of the Olympics by the black athletes. A combination of the deaths of Rev Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and a lack of solidarity of all of the Black athletes led to them not boycotting the Olympics. This allowed each athlete to express themselves individually. The significance of Carlos and Smith display goes as follows: the gloves were for Power(Black) and Unity. The shoeless entry(stocking feet) was for poverty. The beads they wore represented lynchings(‘Strange Fruit’). Carlos entered with an unzipped jacket(against Olympic protocol) as a tribute to blue collar workers.
Just prior to the walk up to the Olympic podium, John Carlos and Tommie Smith made Peter Norman aware of their plan. They asked him if he believed in human rights. Peter answered that he did and that he believed strongly in God. Peter said, “I will stand with you, how can I participate?” They asked him to wear the Olympic Project for Human Rights(OPHR) badge. Remembers Carlos, “ I expected to see fear in Peter’s eyes, but instead we saw love.” Norman reached for Carlos’ badge but he said, “this is mine but we will get you one.” Paul Hoffman a Harvard and Olympic crew team member offered his to Norman. Just prior to the walk in to the dais, Carlos realized he had forgotten his gloves. It was Peter who suggested that Tommie and Carlos each wear one, which they both agreed. The three men, united, walked to the dais…and history was soon to be made.
“I couldn’t see what was happening, Norman said, but I knew they had gone through with the plan when a voice sang the American anthem but then faded to nothing. The stadium went quiet; what followed was a shower of boos”. As the threesome walked off the crescendo of boos turned to vicious racial slurs; their lives forever changed and forever linked.
As you are probably aware Tommie Smith and John Carlos were stripped of their medals, kicked off of the team and sent back to the US. Their lives were ruined as they were not allowed to race again, received numerous death threats, fired from their jobs and found it difficult to get substantial jobs for decades. What you may not know is that after the Olympic medal ceremony, when asked about the Americans demonstration by reporters, Peter Norman responds, “I believe that every man is born equal and should be treated that way.” He was then reprimanded by the Australian Olympic committee, banned from racing for 2 years and finally not sent to the 1972 Olympics in Munich even though he was the 5th rated sprinter in the world in the 200m and qualified in the 100 and 200m. He was torn to shreds by the Australian press and returned to apartheid Australia not a star or hero but rather a pariah. He, too, faced a daily challenge of acceptance and any opportunity at all. Even after Australia renounced their apartheid philosophy and long after Carlos and Smith had been forgiven in the U.S. Peter Norman was still persona non grata at home and was not invited in any capacity to be part of the 2000 Olympics in Sidney. At that late date they still wanted Peter to renounce his part in the 1968 demonstration. He of course would not. In fact, Peter was invited to be part of the US Olympic group reuniting with Smith and Carlos, whereupon Michael Johnson introduced himself to Peter and said, “Peter you are my hero”. Peter said, “I didn’t know you even knew who I was. Michael responded, “Of course I know who you are”.
Over time the disruption of the status quo by the 1968 Olympic demonstration has been seen in a different light(change is slow). Nearly 4 decades later in 2005 a heroic 23’ tall sculpture of the medalist podium moment was erected at San Jose St University. Curiously, Peter Norman’s place is vacant so that visitors can stand in accord with Smith and Carlos. It was Norman’s choice to leave his spot vacant since the sculpture is in America, on the duo’s college campus. Per Peter, “ It wasn’t about me. All I did was wear a button of support. That platform is for anybody across this world to stand up for justice and equality.”
The trio have remained close throughout the years. In fact, Peter was at the unveiling of the statue and presented and introduced John Carlos. Tragically, Peter had a variety of medical and chemical issues and died of a heart attack on Oct 3, 2006. Both John and Tommie were pallbearers at his funeral and eulogized him and consider Peter’s mother their “Australian mom”. They often tell Peter’s story, their story at their speaking engagements. Peter remains a friend, a brother, a hero to them and to all who know his story.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fu5K2cOeD4M(John Carlos about Peter Norman)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1dc5MiEs8aY(Statue unveiling with Peter Norman introduction)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4LvwXYmt3Q(who was pete norman by the young turks-TYT)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=–lzACn0aZ8(200m final race)