If I asked a roomful of Australians if they knew of Peter Norman, I suspect the majority would say they had vaguely heard the name, but most would not know whom I was referring to.
Having spent most of my life in a race-based advocacy space, I was well aware of exactly who this person was – and the impact he’s had on race relations here and in the US.
So, who is Peter Norman?
In his own words: “I guess I’d just like to be thought of as an interesting old guy.”
So why does this interesting old guy have a day designated in his honour, but not in his own country, but in the USA?”
Perhaps you remember the famous photo from the 1968 Mexico Olympics, where two black athletes each had one of their arms raised with a black glove on?
Pan to the left of that photo, and you see that the person on the silver medal position is a white man. Yes, Peter Norman. A white man who proudly stood by the side of John Carlos and Tommie Smith, his two black brothers, in solidarity with them in the black rights movement.
Peter Norman stood with them, well aware of the significance of what he was doing and appreciating what the consequences of his actions would be. And despite that he was very proud to do so.
I had read widely about Peter Norman before approaching this book, simply titled, The Peter Norman Story. My knowledge of him was of an athlete who simply grasped an opportunity to stand by his black brothers.
But as you read the book, written by his nephew Matt Norman, and Andrew Webster, you learn of a deeply religious man, committed to issues of equality and equity.
He was a person committed to the rights of Aboriginal people and that sentiment flows throughout this book.
“Warts and all, I’ve been lucky enough to be in the right places at the right times on a lot of occasions,” he once said.
As I read, my view of the man morphed from adoration to pity, as the system isolated and ostracised him. That pity then moved to anger as his rejection of his wife, Ruth, and children by that marriage played out after his return from Mexico.
As he was beaten into submission by the system that had elevated him to cult hero status due to his athletic ability, then dragged him into the mire, because of the hatred for the position he took with Carlos and Smith, you begin to see the frailty of the man.
It was an era of blatant racism in Australia, as it was in the US. Peter Norman was a man who did not exhibit any of that racism. And he could not understand how anyone else could.
His descent into a life dominated by alcohol and disappointment played out in his personal life to the point of impacting directly on his health, and ultimately bringing on an early demise.
The Peter Norman Story is one that needs to be told. It demonstrates the inherent humanity of people. It also highlights the inherent racism of aspects of our society.
There is a connection to the Black Lives Matter movement and the “kneeling” currently being undertaken by US athletes. Around a year ago John Carlos and Colin Kaepernick met in a much heralded meeting. And that drew the connection between the 1968 Olympics protest and the kneeling movement of today.
Norman was a figure completely distant from the black rights movement. But the one connection he had through Carlos and Smith was their humanity. That humanity shone through on that day in 1968.
The impact on the athletes can be gauged not only from the designation of the Peter Norman day, but also in the fact that they (Carlos and Smith) were the pallbearers at Norman’s funeral.
Was Norman also a great athlete? Yes. His record for the 200 Metres still stands as an Australian record, 50 years after it was set.
The Peter Norman Story does not set out to moralise or attack the system in any fashion. It is a personal narrative and gives you an insight into a complex and frail character who was a major contributor to the black rights movement, almost unwittingly.
I understand that there is a movie being made of the story. I look forward to seeing that when it is done. In the meantime, enjoy the narrative, which is personal and an enjoyable read.