In an act as appropriate as it is overdue, the Australian House of Parliament is issuing an official state apology Monday to the country’s late, great sprinter Peter Norman. Norman won the 200-meter silver medal at the 1968 Olympics, but that’s not why he’s either remembered or owed apologies. After the race, gold and bronze medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists on the medal stand and started an international firestorm. Many see the iconic image and assume Norman was just a bystander to history, or as he would joke, “the white guy.” But he was standing in full solidarity with Smith and Carlos, wearing a patch on his chest that reads, “Olympic Project for Human Rights.” As Norman recalled to sports writer Mike Wise, when he heard what Carlos and Smith were going to do he had to show his support. “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. That was just social injustice that I couldn’t do anything about from where I was, but I certainly abhorred it.” On that day, Norman earned the undying respect of Smith, Carlos and countless others. But that didn’t help him upon returning home.
Silver medal or not, Peter Norman was now a pariah in Australia, a country that at the time held racial exclusion laws that rivaled apartheid South Africa. He was banned from running. He was denied a spot on their 1972 team after qualifying. He and his family were harassed, refused work, and made to suffer. “Peter always had it harder than Tommie and me,” remembers John Carlos. “They took turns kicking our butts. Peter had to face an entire country and suffer alone.”
For decades, Peter Norman was invited to condemn Smith and Carlos as well as his own actions. If he had, he would have been re-embraced by the establishment, found steady work through the Australian Olympic Committee, and been part of the pageantry when the Olympics came to Sydney in 2000. But he never wavered and he remained a proud outcast until a fatal heart attack in 2006 struck him down at the all-too-young age of 63. The lead pallbearers at his funeral were John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Now, six years after his death and in the aftermath of what was arguably the poorest Australian Olympic performance in decades, Australia wants to reclaim him as their own. Here is the text of the resolution that will be offered into parliament by MPs Rob Oakeshott and Andrew Leigh:
“That this House; Recognises the extraordinary athletic achievements of the late Peter Norman, who won the silver medal in the 200 metres sprint running at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, in a time of 20.06 seconds, which still stands as the Australian record;
Acknowledges the bravery of Peter Norman in donning an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the podium, in solidarity with African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave the black power salute;
Apologises to Peter Norman for the wrong done by Australia in failing to send him to the 1972 Munich Olympics, despite repeatedly qualifying; and Belatedly recognises the powerful role that Peter Norman played in furthering racial equality.”
Norman’s old comrades are moved by the gesture. I spoke with John Carlos who said to me, “There is no one in the nation of a Australia that should be honored, recognized and appreciated more than Peter Norman. He should be recognized for his humanitarian concerns, his character, his strength and his willingness to be a sacrificial lamb for justice.”
Carlos is right and Norman should be recognized. I understand fully why there is joy among Peter Norman’s family and friends, and yet I can’t help wonder. If Peter Norman were still alive, it is very possible that this stubborn, principled man, would tell the Australian Government to take their apology and stick it down under. I wonder if he’d point out that Australian Olympic boxer Damien Hooper was almost sent home last month for wearing an Aboriginal flag on a T-shirt and the Australian Olympic Committee gave him no support, condemning him for his actions. I wonder if he’d also point out that Aboriginal Australians comprise 2.5 percent of the nation but make up about 26 percent of the prison population. I wonder if he’d rail against the staggering rise in arrests of minorities and Australia’s own version of what in the United States has become known as the “New Jim Crow.” I wonder if he would take inspiration from the late South African freedom fighter and athletic organizer Dennis Brutus. When Brutus was offered a spot in the South African sports hall of fame, he rejected it saying, among other things, “It is incompatible to have those who championed racist sport alongside its genuine victims. It’s time-indeed long past time-for sports truth, apologies and reconciliation.”
Credit Australia for telling the truth, that Norman was denied a place on the 1972 team for his political beliefs. Credit Australia to making the apology. But true reconciliation for a man like Peter Norman could never come from a parliamentary apology for a past wrong. It would come from a national commitment to an anti-racist future.