On the San Jose State University campus -- in Washington Square, on the corner of what would be 6th and San Antonio -- there is a remarkable statue of SJSU alumni Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on an Olympic podium, each holding one black-gloved fist in the air. The scene is so familiar, so powerful, so contentious, so inspiring, that even now, exactly 50 years after that day in Mexico City, it echoes in our consciousness. You can hardly tell the American story of the last half-century without it.
In the statue, as in real life, Smith holds his right hand up as he stands on top of the podium, the gold medal winner. Carlos, who won the bronze, stands behind and below Smith, holding up his left hand.
In the statue, no one stands in the silver medal position. This space is left blank so that anyone can come and stand with Smith and Carlos and their protest against injustice.
In real life, Peter Norman stood there.
* * *
Australia does not have an extensive history of great male sprinters. A stockkeeper named Stan Rowley had raised his own money to race the 100 and 200 meters at the Paris Olympics in 1900; he won two bronze medals. Hec Hogan briefly held the world record at 100 yards, and won the 100-meter bronze medal at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. Four years later, Hogan was in a hospital room in Brisbane, listening to the radio call of the 100-meter final in Rome. Within minutes of the race ending, he died of leukemia.
Nobody really expected Peter Norman to become part of that racing history. He was apprenticing to be a butcher when, as the story has been told, he borrowed spikes and filled in for a no-show in a local track meet. He displayed blazing speed, and thought he might try to become a runner. He became the Australian champion, though, as mentioned, this did not mean much outside of Australia. He had made almost no impact on the world stage. He came to Mexico City as a virtual unknown.
But there was something about the track, the altitude, the scene in Mexico City that brought brilliance out of Norman. In qualifying, he set an Olympic record of 20.2 seconds. The record was quickly matched by Tommie Smith, but still: It was the fastest Norman had ever run. The Australian Associated Press celebrated Norman’s race this way:
“Norman, who set an Olympic record of 20.2 in his first round heat, should qualify for the 200-metres final, but then will have his greatest test against Negro Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith, both who have broken 20 seconds wearing controversial ‘brush’ spikes.'"
The Australian press seemed to be more or less the only people concerned about these “brush spikes” (they were not mentioned in the American press), but they were not the only ones worried about what those Negro Americans -- particularly John Carlos -- would do. Less than a week before the 200-meter final, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a story about Carlos headlined, “Anger the spur for the sprinter.”
“If you want to see how we are going to demonstrate,” the story quotes Carlos saying, “just stick around, fella. You’ll see all in good time. We’re determined to draw attention to the unfair treatment given to black Americans.
“We will demonstrate, all right, but we will demonstrate in our own particular way. … If I win a gold medal, I will be up there to get it. I may throw it into a fire afterward, but nothing is going to keep me from getting it. I would want everyone to see who won that medal.”
[caption id="attachment_23355" align="aligncenter" width="456"] Norman (left) played a key role in Smith and Carlos' gesture of protest.[/caption]
This was obviously a huge story in America; it was minor stuff in Australia. The day before the 200-meter final, Australian Ralph Doubell won at 800 meters, the country’s first-ever Olympic gold medal. A nation celebrated. Nobody thought Norman had a chance against Smith and Carlos, anyway.
“I had a belly full of Olympic rings, not butterflies,” Norman would say of how he felt as the race began. And it was a remarkable race. Everyone watched Smith and Carlos, even as they watched each other. Smith was in lane 3, Carlos in 4. Coming out of the turn, Carlos had the lead, Smith was a half step back, and Norman was nowhere to be seen, a distant fifth.
And that’s when Tommie Smith took off. He blew past Carlos and pulled away. He would win the gold at 19.83 seconds, a world record that would stand for more than a decade. Down the stretch, Smith ran about as fast as any human ever had.
He wasn’t the only one.
John Carlos had made a crucial mistake. All the while, he was so focused on Smith that he constantly looked to his left at his countryman. And he never saw Norman coming from his right. By the time Norman pulled to his side, it was too late.
“At the last moment,” Carlos told co-author Dave Zirin for the The John Carlos Story, “I saw a white blur. And I said to myself, ‘Oh [bleep] it’s Peter Norman.”
Carlos stumbled slightly as Norman drove past him and leaned into the tape to win the silver medal. Norman’s closing 50 meters is one of the most extraordinary finishes in the history of the event — even on grainy old film, it does not seem possible that he can catch Carlos. But he does. Norman ran 20.06 seconds, the race of his life. It remains the Australian 200-meter record.
“He now,” the Sydney Morning Herald wrote, “can probably be classified as the world’s fastest white man.”
[caption id="attachment_23356" align="aligncenter" width="457"] In San Jose State's statue, the silver medal position stands empty.[/caption]
After the race, Smith and Carlos took their stand. ”It was a cry for freedom,” Smith would say. They took off their shoes to protest poverty. Carlos wore a string of beads that, he told Zirin, represented the photographs of lynchings he had grown up seeing. The plan was for each of them to wear a set of black gloves to signify black power and unity, but Carlos had forgotten to bring his gloves.
It was Peter Norman who suggested that Smith wear the right-handed glove, Carlos the left.
See, before the ceremony, Smith and Carlos approached Norman. They asked him, “Do you believe in God?” Norman said yes. Then they asked him, “Do you believe in civil rights?” Norman said yes. Then they told him what they would do. And Norman responded with four of the most eloquent words in the history of the Olympics.
“I’ll stand with you,” Peter Norman said.
He did stand with them, not with his hand in the air, for this was not his fight, but proudly, with his head down, and while he wore a patch that said, “Olympic Project for Human Rights.”
“I believe,” Norman told reporters afterward, “that every man is born equal and should be treated that way,”
* * *
Smith and Carlos knew that they would face hell afterward. The crowd began to boo before the anthem even finished. The IOC immediately suspended the pair from the U.S. team, and expelled them from the Olympic village. The U.S. track team suspended them. The men came home to some applause and some death threats.
But as time went on, people caught up to the simple power and genuine feeling of their protest. “There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag, not symbolizing a hatred for it,” Smith said.
They each briefly played professional football, and then they went on in life, Smith as a track coach and sociology professor, Carlos as a track coach and school counselor. In time, in the United States, their raised fists became a mostly admired symbol of the fight for civil rights.
The story was different for Peter Norman.
At first, it seemed as if Norman’s role in the protest was minor enough that he would not get caught up in it. Australia's chef de mission, Julius Patching, mostly shielded Norman from the wrath of the IOC -- Patching didn’t seem to know what all the fuss was about. “They’re screaming out for your blood,” he reportedly told Norman, “so consider yourself severely reprimanded. … Now, you got any tickets for the hockey today?”
And the first bits of press back home were generally positive.
“The fact is,” the Sydney Morning Herald editorialized, “that what Smith and Carlos did, in their elation, was not a political demonstration but an intensely human demonstration by proud representatives of one of the most unjustly treated races in and throughout the world. It was in sympathy with this feeling, presumably, that Australian Peter Norman joined them -- and we can be glad that he did.”
But there were stormy days ahead for Norman. He faced intense criticism when he got home. Australia had its own civil rights struggle, and people didn’t like seeing Norman as an activist. He retired from racing in 1970, came back, and in 1972, made news when, after being awarded the silver medal at the Victorian State Finals in a race that he felt sure he had won, he refused to go to the medal stand. He later dropped the silver medal in the lap of the judge. That seemed to stir up a lot of bad feelings and, even though he qualified to go to the Munich Olympics, the Australian Olympic Committee would not send him. In the end, they did not send anyone.
Norman, in his later years, drank heavily and suffered from depression. He felt ostracized and forgotten in his own country. When the Olympics came to Sydney in 2000, there was no public effort to remember him. He came to those Olympics as a guest of USA Track and Field.
In 2012, six years after Norman died, Australian Parliament passed a motion of apology to Peter Norman.
“This house,” it read, “recognized the extraordinary athletic achievement of the late Peter Norman … acknowledges the bravery of Peter Norman in donning an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge … apologizes to Peter Norman for the treatment he received about his return to Australia … belatedly recognizes the powerful role that Peter Norman played in furthering racial equality.”
Six years after that, just this year, the Australian Olympic Committee finally honored Norman with its highest honor, the Order of Merit.
“He was,” John Carlos has said repeatedly, “my brother from another mother.”
And, at last, we return to the statue on the campus of San Jose State, and that empty spot where Peter Norman once stood. When Carlos and Smith saw the empty space, they did not like it. For them, Norman was a big part of the story, a man from halfway around the world who stood in solidarity with them because he knew it was right. “He paid a helluva price,” Carlos said.
But when Norman saw the empty space, he was delighted.
“Anybody can stand up there,” he said, “and stand up for something they believe in.”
“When he said that,” Carlos wrote, “it made him even larger than life -- in my mind and in my heart -- than ever before.”