Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

A white Australian backed the cause dramatized by black American Olympic stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos

Oct. 16 is the 50th anniversary of the day Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raised their fists on the podium at the 1968 Olympics after winning medals in the men's 200-meter dash.

Australia's Peter Norman (left) stood on the podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City as Americans Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos raised their gloved fists in a human rights protest.
Australia's Peter Norman (left) stood on the podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City as Americans Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos raised their gloved fists in a human rights protest.Read moreAP file photo

Oct. 16 is the 50th anniversary of the day Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raised their fists on the podium at the 1968 Olympics after winning medals in the men's 200-meter dash.

Back at the 2000 Olympics, Inquirer and Daily News columnist Frank Fitzpatrick interviewed the third man who stood on the podium that day: Australia's Peter Norman.

Six years later, Norman passed away at age 64.

Here we present Frank's story from our archives, originally published on Sept. 23, 2000.

SYDNEY, Australia — Four bars into the U.S. national anthem, Peter Norman knew it had happened. He had begun the day hoping to make history. Now he would stand forever in its shadow.

At that moment, Norman heard the man who sang the anthems at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics suddenly stop. The huge crowd watching the medals ceremony for the men's 200-meter dash fell silent, too.

Atop the silver-medalist's stand, Norman smiled slightly. That's when the camera caught him for eternity, though few who look at that famous photo now even notice the Australian sprinter. What they see instead is one of the most familiar tableaus in Olympic history, the black-gloved fists of U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised high in historic protest.

Norman is to their left, facing the ascending flags, his back to the Americans. There is a silver medal around his neck, a large white button on his jersey, and a sly smile on his face.

"That was a look of smug satisfaction, knowing that Tommie and John had accomplished what they wanted to do," Norman said on Wednesday in a telephone interview from his office in Melbourne, Australia. "I was proud to be a small part of it."

Now doing public relations work for the Australian state of Victoria, Norman has been reminded again of that long-ago October afternoon by the Sydney Olympics. They started, after all, with an Aborigine sprinter raising her arm – though Cathy Freeman was lighting a cauldron, not igniting a firestorm.

"We have a situation here where our prime minister [John Howard] has refused to say he's sorry to the Aboriginal people for the rest of the Australian people," said Norman, 57. "But I'm sure, if Catherine should win a gold medal, he'll be the first to put his arm around her."

Norman grew up in Melbourne. He sold meat pies at the Olympics there in 1956 and soon got serious about track. At the '68 Games, he was a promising sprinter with a not entirely unrealistic dream of a gold medal. He set a world record in his heat, though Smith would break it 21 hours later.

Before the final, Carlos tried to psyche Norman out, telling the white Australian that he was going to "kick my a–."

Carlos passed him immediately, and Norman fell back. With 50 meters remaining, Smith had a comfortable lead.

"I couldn't have caught him with a motorbike," Norman said.

A late burst pushed Norman past everyone else.

Back in the athletes' lounge, primping for the awards ceremony, Smith and Carlos, who had finished third, took Norman aside.

"They said they didn't want to embarrass me," Norman recalled. "They said they had planned some sort of symbolic gesture to call attention to the plight of fellow African Americans. They were going to wear black socks, with no shoes, to symbolize black poverty. "

And while not providing specifics, they said that there was something else.

Carlos asked Norman if he wanted to take part.

"I told them, sure, that I certainly supported their cause, but as it turned out, it would have looked ridiculous if I had raised my fist, too," Norman said. "John asked if I'd wear a button that said, 'Olympic Project for Human Rights.' "

Tumult marked 1968 in America. Riots scarred inner cities. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. The black U.S. athletes had threatened a boycott of the Olympics. Finally, they had decided to participate but had vowed to use the Olympic spotlight to illuminate their cause.

Carlos and Smith donned the buttons but couldn't find another. As they and Norman men walked to the podium, Carlos spotted a friend along the fence separating the track from the grandstand.

"He was wearing one," Norman said. "John took it from him and gave it to me. I was proud to be a small part of what they represented."

On the stand, Norman couldn't see if they had gone through with the plan. Once he heard the man stop singing, though, he knew that they had. The music for the anthem played on. When it finished, a cacophony of boos, cheers and whistles filled the stadium.

"It was chaos," Norman said.

The Australian had shared the Americans' concerns, he said, knowing that his own country had serious racial problems.

"The way I looked at it was they had carved out their own few feet of space on the medal stand, space they had earned," Norman said. "They had the right to use that platform to say whatever they wanted. There was no violence. No guns. No bullets. They made their point peacefully, and the whole world witnessed it."

After the ceremony, the medalists were escorted to a news conference. The U.S. press, Norman said, was tremendously hostile to Smith and Carlos.

"They were out to nail the guys," he said. "They prejudged their action before they really knew what it was about. They portrayed it as a 'Black Power' thing, but it wasn't. John told them their salute was a symbol of black unity and black strength. "

Norman, who spent 24 years as a physical education teacher, took considerable heat in Australia for wearing the button and for comments comparing the problems of Aborigines to those of American blacks.

"I said I supported Smith and Carlos despite my country's White Australia policies," he said. "But, for me, that all passed very quickly. Tommie and John paid the price a lot longer."

Smith and Carlos were dismissed from the athletes' village and never ran again for America. Norman saw them at a TV taping several years ago. They embraced him warmly but didn't speak much about that day.

In a run-down, graffiti-marred area of Sydney, a huge mural of the famous scene takes up the side of a building. Norman only recently learned of its existence. It pleases him, he said, nearly as much as the silver medal.

"What John and Tommie did raised the consciousness of everyone about the racial discord that existed," he said. "It captured the spirit for change."

Just the way the cameras captured the moment and froze Norman in time.

"Thirty-two years later," he said, "and people still haven't forgotten."