As athletes we can get swept up in the moment and zone in on the time on the clock or the distance recorded next to our names. However, athletics is so much more than just results. It is about sportsmanship and camaraderie.
One person who showcased true sportsmanship and showed the best side of our beautiful sport was former club member Peter Norman. When you’re at your first Olympic Games it’s easy to be swept up in the moment and focus on it being about you vs the world. But not Peter Norman. Peter Norman went to the 1968 New Mexico Olympics and ran the fastest race of his life, setting a new Australian record and became the club’s first (and to this day only) Olympic medallist by securing silver in the 200m. He could have focused solely on this fantastic personal achievement, something he’d spent years dreaming about, but he didn’t. He chose that moment to showcase a brave stance in support of human rights and racial equality.
1968 was a big year in the human rights movement – Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had both been assassinated and the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) was causing headaches for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as it continued to protest against racial segregation and racism in sport. Athletes had been warned ahead of the games by the IOC that those protesting in support of human rights would risk being thrown out of the games.
Two athletes who were not deterred by these threats where African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who finished first and third alongside Norman in the 200m. Norman knew that both Smith and Carlos were planning on making some kind of statement on the podium to draw awareness to their fight against racism. He told them he wanted to stand alongside them in solidarity to show his support as he believed in the cause they were fighting for.
1968 was a very different time to what we live in now. It was a time were standing up for racial equality could put a target on your back; something that was evident from the assassinations of King and Kennedy earlier that year. Despite the known risks, three brave men, two Americans and one Australian proudly wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge as they stood silently on the podium to showcase their belief in human rights and racial equality. Together Smith, Carlos and Norman showed that
there are more important things in life than winning medals. Their actions at the 1968 Olympic Games have become one of the most recognisable moments in modern Olympic history.
The importance of the actions of these three athletes has been recognised in recent years with statues being unveiled at; the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., San Jose State University and at Lakeside Stadium.
In 2006 the USATF declared the day of Norman’s funeral, October 9, Peter Norman Day in honour of his actions. This day has now been adopted by Athletics Australia.
In 2018, the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) awarded Norman posthumously the AOC Order of Merit for his involvement of the protest.
Norman’s contributions have been acknowledged in the Australian Federal parliament by Hon. Dr Andrew Leigh MP and Hon. Lisa Singh. In August 2012, Hon. Andrew Leigh MP led the motion in the House of Representatives for a posthumous apology to be issued. The chamber passed an official apology motion on 11 October 2012.
As a club we are incredibly proud of Peter Norman’s stance and his example of sportsmanship and humanitarianism are those we can all admire.
In 1968 Peter Norman ran the fastest race of his life to become part of something that transcended the Games.