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Aussie honored 54 years after iconic protest

Reflecting on two moments 37 years apart pulls into focus the extraordinary impact of Peter Norman, an Australian icon who on Thursday night was honored with Sport Australia’s The Dawn Award.

When USA sprinter Tommie Smith introduced teammate John Carlos to Norman late one night at the athletes’ village at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Carlos snarled and trudged away.

Yet on October 9, 2006, Carlos joined Smith and several others as the pallbearers at Norman’s funeral in Melbourne.

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The catalyst for the change in Carlos’ heart was an act by Norman captured in perhaps the most powerful sports photograph in history: a picture of the gun runner from Melbourne joining Smith and Carlos in the black power protest during the medal ceremony for the men’s 200m sprint at the Mexico City Games.

After Smith clinched gold, Norman silver and Carlos bronze, the three men combined to take a world-defining stand against racism in solidarity with the civil-rights movement rippling through the USA.

Norman stood with Smith and Carlos on the podium as his competitors raised a fist each encased in a black glove and bowed their heads, a 50,000-strong crowd at the Olympic stadium and millions of other eyes across the world watching on as the USA’s national anthem , The Star-Spangled Banner, row through the stadium.

Pinned to the jackets worn by the three men were Olympic Project for Human Rights badges — one of many symbols pivotal to the statement.

The black gloves on Smith’s and Carlos’ hands represented unity and strength, Smith wore a black scarf as a symbol of black pride, black beads around Carlos’ neck — exposed by an unzipped USA tracksuit in defiance of Olympic rules — signified the shameful number of lynchings of African-Americans, and no shoes—black socks were worn instead—exposed poverty.

In 2016, a photograph taken by John Dominis was named in Time magazine’s 100 most influential images in history.

“We are in the Olympic Project for Human Rights,” Carlos had said to Norman as they steeled themselves to emerge from a tunnel in the stadium.

“Do you believe in human rights?”

Norman smiled and was emphatic in his response.

“Of course I believe in human rights,” Norman said.

But not only did the 26-year-old Norman stand with Smith and Carlos on the podium with an OPHR badge pinned to his jacket, he’d played a crucial role in the planning of the protest.

When it was realized that Smith had taken black gloves to the stadium but Carlos had left his at the athletes’ village, Norman proposed that Carlos wear Smith’s left glove. That’s why Carlos raised his left hand as Smith lifted his right.

Norman had also shown initiative by suggesting to Smith and Carlos that he join them in giving an OPHR badge, before tracking down a button himself.

“Hey, mate. You got another one of those?” Norman said to Paul Hoffman, the coxswain from the US men’s rowing eight.

Hoffman passed a badge to Norman and reflected on the moment years later.

“He’s a white Australian runner with two black athletes wanting an OPHR badge,” Hoffman said.

“I’ll be damned if I’m not going to give it to him.”

Norman paid a mighty cost for his role in the black power protest.

He never competed in another Olympic Games despite meeting the Munich 1972 qualifying standards for both the 100m and 200m sprints on a host of occasions. Whether he was overlooked because of the protest remains a topic of debate; one school of thought is he wasn’t picked due to a knee injury.

Twenty-eight years later, Norman was shunned by the Australian Olympic Committee ahead of the Sydney 2000 Games. He was invited as a guest — not by the AOC, rather the USA Track and Field Federation.

In another blow related to the protest, Norman’s first marriage broke down and he began to suffer from alcoholism and depression.

Several public recognitions of Norman’s incredible hand in the protest have eventuated in the last 10 years.

In 2012, six years after Norman died, Federal Parliament issued an apology over his treatment.

In 2018, Athletics Australia introduced the Peter Norman Humanitarian Award.

A statue of Norman was then unveiled at Melbourne’s Albert Park in 2019.

He clocked 20.06 at the Mexico City Olympics to set an Australian record that still stands today, yet it’s his role in the protest for which he’s widely remembered.

Named after swimming legend Dawn Fraser, The Dawn Award recognizes a courageous ground-breaker who has demonstrated achievement against the odds and challenged the status quo.

Tennis champion Evonne Goolagong-Cawley claimed The Dawn Award in its inaugural year in 2021.

Norman’s widowed wife, Jan, said on Thursday night that he would have been overjoyed by winning the 2022 edition of the award.

“This would’ve meant everything to Peter, and certainly to the family — it’s wonderful for us,” she said.

“It’s such a shame that he’s not here to see all this … he would’ve been absolutely delighted.

“He was an absolute larrikin.

“He was all for the underdog, which is how he got himself involved in all this in the first place.”

Ralph Doubell, who won gold in the men’s 800m at the 1968 Olympics, hailed the stand taken by Norman, Smith and Carlos in an interview with Wide World of Sports in February.

“At the end of the day they can stand up and say, ‘We helped the black cause’,” Doubell said.

“And that may have been one of those critical moments when the weight of the issues gets changed from what it was to what it should be.

“I think it’s important in that Peter wasn’t closely associated with Smith and Carlos, he wasn’t a black man; he just thought that was the right thing to do and he was sympathetic to what Carlos and Smith were doing.”

Doubell believes Norman wasn’t selected for the 1972 Olympics because of his support for the black power salute.

“It’s devastating,” he said.

“You run to run in the Olympics and you expect that if the qualification is there and you meet the qualification there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be selected.”

Doubell, who attended Norman’s funeral, said he was fondly remembered.

“He was a guy who stood up for what he thought was right and in Mexico City he was right.”

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