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SPORT

Oct 14, 2010

All that glitters is not necessarily gold as US athlete sells iconic medal

Legendary American athlete and symbol of the American civil rights movement Tommie Smith is selling his gold medal, made famous by the iconic Black Power salute photo. But there's an Australian angle to this story we should never forget, writes Leigh Josey.

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It’s perhaps the most iconic photograph in Olympic history and perhaps the most symbolic moment in the American civil rights movement in the 1960s: American 200 metre gold medallist Tommie Smith and, in solidarity, compatriot and fellow African American John Carlos, arms raised, saluting Black Power.

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Today it’s reported that Smith is putting his gold medal up for auction — and the red Puma boots he wore.

It’s sad that in an era of professionalism and commercialism in sport, where drugs and gambling (and not to mention underwhelming events such as the current Commonwealth Games where the pursuit of gold appears to be the overarching ideal) detract from the purest events — and harbingers of change — that sport can produce, such as that night in Mexico in 1968. Smith’s medal, as Barry Petchesky wrote in US sports blog Deadspin, “belongs with Smith, or in a museum, not on an auction block.”

However, this story has Australian relevance, an important Australian context. For the man who won silver that night was Australian Peter Norman. He is part of that iconic photo, but so much more.

Norman passed away in 2006. Smith and Carlos attended his funeral, both were pallbearers and gave eulogies.

“They were like his brothers,” Peter’s daughter Belinda Norman, who lives in Melbourne, told Crikey today. “He would tell me the story [of 1968]. He had his medal at home. I took it to school for show and tell in grade one and the teacher had to call him to check he knew I had it. He wasn’t precious about it.”

According to Belinda, it “wasn’t all about the medal” for her father, who won silver for Australia but left Mexico City with two lifelong friends.

When Peter attended San Jose State University’s unveiling of a statue created for Smith and Carlos (who were both alumni) in 2005, Peter “was treated like a king, a celebrity,” recalls Belinda.

Belinda said it was her father’s idea to split a single pair of gloves so both Smith and Carlos had a glove each (it’s why they have gloves on opposing hands) as Carlos couldn’t find his pair before the medal ceremony.

As for Smith selling his gold medal: “Dad wouldn’t have had a problem,” says Belinda. “He wouldn’t have judged Tommie for selling the medal at all.”

Because, as the world found out on a dais in Mexico City in 1968, there are some things more important than gold.

Leigh Josey —

Leigh Josey

Crikey production manager

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9 comments

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9 thoughts on “All that glitters is not necessarily gold as US athlete sells iconic medal

  1. Puff, the Magic Dragon.

    I was totally turned away from the Commonwealth Games coverage this time because of the parochialism of our shameful media (including the ABC) and the appalling lack of sportsmanship of our athletes. For example, I did not hear one athlete who won a gold medal pay any respect to the other contestants in their events. If I had heard Australian Gold or Aussie Gold from our ding-bat commentators one more time I am certain I would have vomited.

    I understand athletes from countries where an Institute of Sport is unheard of put in personal performances that were memorable and worthy of great merit. These stories received little or no media coverage. All we heard was boasting and crowing over our medal ‘haul’; and the athletes were not much better. To see that Aussie runner crying because she did not win a gold medal she must have known she did not deserve because she broke the start, was as cringe-worthy as the others who gave the bird to judges. She missed out on a medal? She was traumatised. She was running in a country where millions live on a few cents a day and do not have decent medical care. That is trauma!

    I do not know what they teach in the AIS and similar Australian sports development programs but sportsmanship, grace in winning and losing, and manners seem to be no part of it.

    I would trade all the gold medals Australia won at these Commonwealth Games for athletes who could conduct themselves with grace, humility and with respect for others.

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