Finding direction in a 52-year-old photo

Image: Wiki Commons

 

Of all the photos taken of athletes with their fists in the air, in their moment of control, one remains pre-eminent.

 

John Dominis’ snap of US runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos, captures not their sense of glory at winning gold and bronze in the 200 metres of the 1968 Olympics, but of course their stand against racial inequality, in sport and America generally.

 

Some of the great sporting photos – Ali bearing down on an unconscious Liston, Tayla Harris firing on goal from 40 metres out – are special because you can hear them: The snarls of triumph or exertion from their open mouths and the electrifying hum of the blurred crowd in the background.

 

This one is special because you can’t hear it. When viewing the photo, you hear from its three subjects the same thing Dominis heard before the click of his camera: nothing.

 

So much can and has been said about this image: The socks, the fact Smith and Carlos are raising different fists, the price they paid in the aftermath.

 

But in light of the last two weeks, as America once again burns and the civil rights movement shakes the world, perhaps it is the figure to the left that deserves attention.

 

Peter Norman, the silver medallist, born in Melbourne in 1942. He stares dead ahead, mouth slightly open as if breathing heavily.

 

On his breast pocket is an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge. The token shows him to be a supporter of the movement against racism, and of the other two athletes’ actions. His arms, down at his sides, show he is not the focus of the movement.

 

He has no reason to look to his left – he has been in on the act since his fellow podium straddlers talked to him directly following the race. His response: “I will stand with you”.

 

So though he is not looking at the spectacle, the other two men feel seen. Though there is silence, the other two men feel heard.

 

Like Carlos and Smith, Norman paid dearly for his subtle yet public display of basic humanity. Though the Australian Olympic Committee denied as recently as 2015 punishing Norman for his involvement, he never ran in the Olympics again, and he was treated like a leper upon his return home.

 

He played no role in the Sydney Olympics, but never backed down from his actions, up until the day he died in 2006.

 

Just as Australia has been slower to face up to its history of racism than America has, we have been slower to repent to Norman. As writer Andrew Webster has noted, it was two years after Carlos and Smith joined the American Olympic team at the White House that Norman received an Order of Merit from the AOC, posthumously (a parliamentary apology came in 2012).

 

Carlos and Smith carried Norman’s coffin when he died, a sign of how grateful they were for the part he played. Without the internet, suddenly full of fresh advice on how best to be an ally, he knew exactly what to do.

 

How many of us have wanted to feel like that in the past week? To feel comfortable the choices we have made in how to show support are the right ones, so that we might have the courage to stand by them our whole lives?

 

With those few short minutes he spent on the podium in Mexico City, Norman taught the country he won a medal for a lesson: Stand with victims of intolerance, even if – especially if – you can’t relate to their struggles. Show them they are seen and heard.

 

Tell your kids about Peter Norman, The Age read when he died. It’s worth us telling each other about him too: This forgotten hero of the sporting world’s time has come.

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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About Alex Darling

Melbourne-born, Horsham-based footy fan. Lover of the Saints, classic rock guitar and good writing on each of these topics.

Comments

  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Certainly a pivotal time in sport, and society for that matter. Remember the time well though many people found it difficult to understand the significance of the act.They still unfortunately.

  2. Rod Oaten says

    I remember the incident well and I also remember the appalling attitude of the Australian Olympic Committee towards this great person who was standing up for Human Rights.
    I may be wrong, but I think his time for 200 metres still stands.

  3. Daryl Schramm says

    Wow. My first time in ‘getting into’ this story, even though I am old enough to remember the moment and the photo. Thank you for posting and for the education Alex.

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