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.
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.