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

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.

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  • 1
    SBH
    Posted Thursday, 14 October 2010 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Nice piece Leigh (especially the observation about the pursuit of gold as a corruption of an older nobler goal) and I know Robert Plant sang glitters but it’s ‘glisters’ ferchrissake. Other wise Hamlet may as well have said ‘live or die? Whatta ya reckon’

  • 2
    Leigh Josey
    Posted Thursday, 14 October 2010 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    SBH, we had that exact debate this morning when doing the headline. But I vetoed the “glisters” bloc within the editorial team because I am a mad Zep fan. Saying that, you are %100 correct.

  • 3
    c0nnect4
    Posted Thursday, 14 October 2010 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Nice story … but perhaps Tolkien’s version, “All that is gold does not glitter” would have been more appropriate, and saved you the trouble :)

  • 4
    baal
    Posted Thursday, 14 October 2010 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    On another tack - ABC Local Radio has broadcast very little else but these effing Games for nearly two weeks now. Some queries: is it a non-ratings period (like school holidays) if not where will the listeners have went? And will they come back? And how much did it cost? Probably the entire budget of one of the other ABC radio networks and the Drum combined? Who cares or are we in an ABC freeze zone?

  • 5
    zut alors
    Posted Thursday, 14 October 2010 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    A good piece Leigh and a timely reminder of how sport can be valuable - and I don’t mean the monetary sponsorships so desired by today’s athletes.

    How heartwarming to learn that Peter Norman “wasn’t precious” about his medal.

  • 6
    Puff, the Magic Dragon.
    Posted Friday, 15 October 2010 at 12:36 am | Permalink

    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.

  • 7
    baal
    Posted Friday, 15 October 2010 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Australia is the Collingwood of the world

  • 8
    sauron256
    Posted Friday, 15 October 2010 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Peter Norman was also treated shamefully by the Australian media and AOC after the event, ostracized after speaking out against the White Australia policy. He was not invited to be involved in the Sydney Olympics by Australia, but became part of the event when invited by the Americans once they learned his home country didn’t want him.

  • 9
    Posted Saturday, 16 October 2010 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    To think this sh*t still went on, but then Mandela was in gaol and white western governments were making excuses for the pro Nazi South African National Party. Aboriginal Australians had so very far to go on land rights. To me this shot really proves that everything is politics, including the IOC corporate incumbency insisting the Olympics is not political, meaning defacto support for the status quo whatever it is, which was/is quite lame really.

    I know they have to work at Swiss neutrality for international cooperation but you have to wonder about officious sports administrators.

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