A Price to Pay

There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right.
— Martin Luther King Jr.

More often than not, history shows its favor to those who take a stand for the greater good. Unfortunately for Peter Norman, he didn’t live to see the day. Now, at least once a year, a country must relive the shame of making a martyr of a man who seemed destined for athletic immortality, and I’m left to reflect on how showing empathy towards the struggles of another can destroy a man’s life.

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the moment John Carlos and Tommy Smith stood together in Mexico City at the 1968 Summer Olympics, fists raised, black-gloved: The Black Power Salute. Their actions, now regarded admirably for their bravery and a calling to protest against social injustice, was not received well by many, however. They were sent home by the United States Olympic Committee, disgraced. The third person on the podium, an Australian named Peter Norman who had just narrowly bested John Carlos to win the Silver Medal in their 200 meter dash, had offered the Americans his gloves to carry out their protest. In support, Norman thought it was appropriate to wear a badge representing the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

He did not escape unscathed either. Not in the least bit. This showing of solidarity had its price, as the Australian was stripped of all his glory, dying a forgotten man. Shunned by his country.

Despite being highly ranked in the world, and qualifying for the following Olympic Games, Australia chose not to send him to Munich, marking the first time that the nation was not represented by a sprinter at the Olympics. Labeled a traitor for allegedly disrespecting the Olympic flag, Norman was not regarded for his athletic accomplishments back home. When the Olympic Games came to Australia in 2000, Norman was not invited by the Australian Olympic Committee to represent the country in the opening ceremonies. He instead was invited by Carlos and Smith to participate with the American proceedings.

In 2012, the Australian Olympic Committee formally apologized to Norman, acknowledging his track time at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, still the fastest time ever ran by an Australian. Earlier this year Norman was given an Order of Merit by the AOC for his "remarkable merit in the sporting world". He died of a heart attack in 2006, never seeing the day his accomplishments were rightfully acknowledged.

The benefit of hindsight probably leads you to think that the actions at the 1968 Summer Olympics were admirable. Because they were. But Norman couldn’t have expected what was coming his way. I chose to focus on the third man in the photo because while it’s almost a foregone conclusion that the face of a movement will shoulder the backlash, those who lend their support often face sacrifices of their own.