Peter Norman: 200-Meter Silver Medalist and Ostracized Australian

Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) on the podium after the 200 meter race at the 1960 Summer Games in Mexico City. Peter Norman took silver and is the person on the left. All three wore the OPHR button and went barefoot in protest.
Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) on the podium after the 200 meter race at the 1960 Summer Games in Mexico City.

An amazing post from the blog whatwesee has been making the rounds – The White Man in the Photo – which focuses on the story of Peter Norman, the Caucasian sharing the podium with Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Games.

You would think with all the attention Smith and Carlos got with their black-glove protest, two fists thrust defiantly in the air, that they had placed first and second in the 200 meter race. But it was Norman who took silver in front of Carlos. And while Smith and Carlos were famous runners from “Speed City”, Lloyd (Bud) Winter’s San Jose State College track team, Norman was no slouch. In fact, according to Richard Hoffer in his book, Something in the Air: American Passion and Defiance in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Norman, Smith and Carlos traded places on record paces several times.

“Smith tied the record of 20.3 in the first round; Norman, who had never run faster than 20.5, ran 20.2 to break it in his head; and then Smith came back in his to tie it. This was inspired running. In Wednesday’s two semifinals, both Smith and Carlos won their races in new Olympic records of 20.1.”

Tommie Smith won the finals in world record time of 19.83 seconds, but Peter Norman snuck ahead of Johan Carlos at the end as Carlos was turning his head. According to Hoffer, Norman really wanted in on the protest, and bumped into Harvard rower, Paul Hoffman. Hoffman, a Caucasian, was part of a crew team that went out of their way to support the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) and their demands for equality for Blacks in America. Hoffman was the type of who invited the women’s track team, who were Black, to an all-white Harvard alumni event in Canada, and who set up a meeting with the Black Panthers to discuss ways the Harvard rowing team could show their support.

OPHR Button
OPHR Button

So when Norman walked by Hoffman, he said, “Hey mate,” you got another one of those, Hoffman was suspicious. Norman was from Australia, which had an apartheid-like policy of its own…and yet he was asking for Hoffman’s OPHR button. Hoffman wondered whether Norman was joking. Hoffman decided that he wasn’t.

And the rest is history. Norman shared that incredible moment with Smith and Carlos, shoeless and defiant. And while our eyes never really notice the white guy in the photo, as the popular blog post notes, Norman did suffer the consequences when he went home to Australia. As stated in the “whatwesee” blog post, Norman was treated like an outsider, an outcast, and subsequently couldn’t get stable work. Norman eventually had to deal with depression and alcoholism. As the whatweesee blog post states, Norman died in 2006, with Tommie Smith and John Carlos as two of his pallbearers.

“Peter was a lone soldier. He consciously chose to be a sacrificial lamb in the name of human rights. There’s no one more than him that Australia should honor, recognize and appreciate” John Carlos said.

“He paid the price with his choice,” explained Tommie Smith, “It wasn’t just a simple gesture to help us, it was HIS fight. He was a white man, a white Australian man among two men of color, standing up in the moment of victory, all in the name of the same thing”.

So, yes, this blog post deserves a look. It’s an amazing story.