The seldom-told story of the third man in John Carlos and Tommie Smithís iconic protest
As NFL protests continue to be debated, both in and out of the league, the legacy of sports activism has by nature, also taken center stage. It's a history that, in balance, disproves the often-stated belief that players should just stick to their day jobs, that politics have no place on our fields or courts.
For every brave and iconic Muhammad Ali story, there are scores of less well-known athletes using whatever platform they have to push forward social-justice causes that mean the most to them. Though rarely heard, their stories are often as essential.
One of those stories, is the tale of the [other] man, Australian runner Peter Norman, who won silver at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and stood on the podium as Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their black-gloved fists in the air in support of African-American rights and dignity.
For many, Norman was seen as simply a bystander, or "the white guy" in the photo. A largely insignificant figure in one of the Olympics' most iconic moments. But as Smith and Carlos held their fists up high to highlight the racism and segregation that marked life as a black person in America, Norman stood in quiet solidarity. Hard to see in the photo is a small badge he wore that read: "Olympic Project for Human Rights," an American organization started the year before to protest global racial injustice. After all, he was coming from Australia, which sports writer Dave Zirin describes as "a country that at the time held racial exclusion laws that rivaled apartheid South Africa."
"Iíll stand with you," Italian writer Riccardo Gazzaniga said John Carlos remembers. "I expected to see fear in Normanís eyes, but instead we saw love."
While the narrative around the emblematic photo has often left out Norman, Australia certainly did not forget his actions. Four years later and in 1972, Norman was not part of his country's Olympic sprinter team in Munich, "despite having run qualifying times for the 200 meters thirteen times and the 100 meters five times," Gazzaniga said.
Norman's career in competitive athletics was over, even though he was so fast that he still holds Australia's national record. He was ostracized, with work largely impossible to find. "If we were getting beat up," Zirin said that John Carlos remembers, "Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone."
Australia offered Norman many chances for redemption. Publicly condemn Smith and Carlos' actions and he would be embraced for the athletic trailblazer he was. More importantly, it was "A pardon that would have allowed him to find a stable job through the Australian Olympic Committee and be part of the organization of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games," Gazzaniga wrote. Norman refused.
[-------------- snipped -----------]