The winners’ stand for the 200-meter event at the 1968 Olympics.

The winners’ stand for the 200-meter event at the 1968 Olympics.

by Dante Zappala

With the ease of sharing on social media, nearly gone is the good old-fashioned email thread. I’ve tried reviving it in my own way. My oldest son has an email account through school this year. I send him pictures and GIFs, to which he never responds. It’s a dying form of communication likely because it takes at least a modest amount of effort.

But much to my surprise, I have been included on several threads from various people in this past week, each sharing the same article. The San Francisco Globe ran a piece originally written in Italian by Riccardo Gazzaniga back in October. The essay describes the life, trials and tribulations of Peter Norman.

Norman was an Australian sprinter in the 1960’s. Despite all of the advances in track surfaces, training and shoes, he still holds his country’s national record in the 200 meters. In setting that record at the Olympic Games in 1968, Norman earned himself a Silver medal and a spot on the podium. That ceremony was made famous by the two other men who stood with him; the Gold and Bronze medal winners from the United States.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos walked out to the awards ceremony barefoot. They split a pair of black leather gloves. Smith wore one on his right hand, Carlos wore the other on his left hand. After all three men received their medals, the National Anthem played. Smith and Carlos each raised their gloved fists in the air. The rest, as they say, is history.

That history has rarely included mention of Peter Norman. The article by Gazzaniga details Norman’s role in the protest. He wore a button for the Olympic Project for Human Rights. This was a movement started the year prior to bring attention to human rights abuses around the world. There was a threatened boycott of the ’68 games that never materialized. Still, there was support for the organization throughout the games, including from Norman.

For the simple act of wearing that button, Norman was ostracized in his own country. He was unable to find work. To make himself right with his country’s Olympic Committee, he was pressured to condemn Carlos and Smith. He would not.

As a result, the greatest sprinter in Australia’s history was denied an invitation, let alone any formal recognition, in 2000 when Sydney hosted the Games. Peter Norman suffered from depression and alcoholism and died of a heart attack in 2006.

The story of Peter Norman is late in its telling. It’s a curious phenomenon that it is finding its way into my inbox. Perhaps it is now, in the context of our heightened awareness of racial issues, that we seek stories which affirm our sense of unity as humans, not necessarily the plight of one group of us.

In this sense, Norman’s story is truly inspiring. I’m glad to see it getting some mileage. Abandoned by his country, he was never abandoned by Smith and Carlos. Both were pallbearers at his funeral.

The article by Gazzaniga misses one major point, which for me defines the legacy of Norman. A statue was erected at San Jose State, where Carlos and Smith went to school, in 2005 to honor the protest of the ’68 games. It features both men with their fists raised defiantly in the air. But the second place spot on the podium, where Peter Norman stood, is empty.

Gazzinga characterizes this as Norman being further forgotten by history. But the truth is that Norman’s absence from the statue was by his own design.

When John Carlos learned that Norman was not featured in the statue, he was livid. Carlos long felt that Norman had suffered as much as he and Smith had, if not more, for his participation in the protest.

“When we got back to the United States,” Carlos said, “Tommie Smith and John Carlos took a terrible whipping … but they can go on one side of town and whip up on Mr. Smith and say, ‘Oh, we’re tired of beating up him – let’s go on the other side of town and find Carlos and whip up on him.’ But when Mr. Norman left and went back to Australia, it wasn’t a switch off. They beat him, and they beat him, and they beat him.”

Carlos was so upset that he called Norman in Australia, not truly believing that this was what Norman wanted.

As Carlos tells the story, Norman said, “I would like to have a blank spot there and have a commemorative plaque stating that I was in that spot. But anyone that comes thereafter from around the world and going to San Jose State that support the movement, what you guys had in ’68, they could stand in my spot and take the picture.”

Humility is not a celebrated trait these days. In fact, the opposite is true. The headlines and our subsequent attention chase the most outrageous personalities and statements. If it’s Donald Trump or Martin Shkreli, we gravitate towards the world’s least worthy people.

In doing so, we lend significance where it isn’t deserved. For if these people are parasites, they can only feed off of our infatuation with them. Such personifications of hatred and greed present us with soft targets for self-righteous anger. They inevitably shift our focus from the real villains that are embedded in our politics and our economy.

Peter Norman offers an alternative. If his story is showing up in email chains, the modern day equivalent of the telegraph, it must reflect a wider resonance of this narrative. It’s healthy and ripe for consumption. Yet we still choose the fries over the side salad.

To overcome injustice we have to overcome ourselves first. We must be willing to stand in second place as witnesses. We must risk being forgotten to history and trust that our legacy for doing just that may change the world.