LONDON — A friend of mine calls them MB moments. Remember the old Brewers hat that looked like a baseball glove with a ball in the middle? It seems that everyone has a moment — some, admittedly sooner than others — when they realize that the webbing of the glove is an “M” and the lower part of the glove is a “B.”
MB. Milwaukee Brewers.
It took me way too long to realize that.
Well, I had an MB moment the other day. I heard, for the first time, an astonishing and (to me) new piece of one of the most famous stories in Olympic history. I was absolutely stunned that I had never heard it before. You probably know it. I feel sure that I’m just telling you that the baseball glove is an M and B, years after you figured it out for yourself.
Still: I guess there’s a chance that if I’ve never heard it, you haven’t either. So here goes:
Peter Norman was an Australian sprinter in the 1960s. You probably know that Australia is not a country with a rich history of great male sprinters. Sprinting was not part of the nation’s rabid sports DNA. Norman was preparing to be a butcher, and he discovered his natural speed quite by accident, when he filled in for a no-show in the local club championship. The story was that he ran his first race on borrowed spikes. He kept running, and became a consistent Australian champion at 200 meters.
He was not well known outside of Australia, though, and not much considered on the world sprinting scene. He had not medaled at a major championship going into the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. But he was running well at those Games, and he worked his way into the final. Then a series of strange and confusing events happened … and these would mark the rest of his life.
The first was that Norman ran the race of his life. His time — 20.06 seconds — was the fastest he had ever run, the fastest he ever would run, and even now, 44 years later, stands as the Australian record.
The second thing that happened was that there was an odd end to the race. The two Americans, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, were great rivals and the two dominant sprinters in the world. In this way, their race was much like the 200-meter race between Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake at these Olympics — everyone else supposedly was racing for bronze.
Sure enough, Carlos and Smith hit the turn together in the lead. But then Smith pulled away — he would set a world record with a time of 19.83. Carlos, in second place by quite a lot, looked to his left at Smith in the final 50 meters, perhaps felt frustrated, and then looked to his left again to be sure that nobody would catch him for silver. What Carlos had not seen coming — what he could not have seen coming, based on history — was that it was Peter Norman to his RIGHT who was actually making the charge.
Norman’s closing 50 meters is one of the most extraordinary finishes in the history of the event — even on grainy old film, it does not seem possible that he could catch John Carlos. But he did. And by the time Carlos realized what was happening, Norman had edged him at the tape to win the silver medal.
Well, of course, you know what the 1968 200-meter race is most famous for. After the race, Carlos and Smith had decided that they needed to make a statement about the struggle for civil rights back in the U.S. There had been some momentum, led by activist Harry Edwards, for black athletes to boycott the 1968 Games. And while that did not happen, there was still a sense among some of the African American athletes that they had to take a stand.
So Carlos and Smith went to Norman and asked him if he believed in human rights. Norman said yes. They asked him if he believed in God. Norman said yes. They told him what they intended to do on the stand and how they were sure that it was the most important thing they would do at the Olympics. Norman said four words that Carlos and Smith would never forget. He said, “I’ll stand with you.”
Carlos and Smith went to the medal podium wearing black socks. They had intended to also wear black gloves, but Carlos had left his pair behind. Norman suggested that one wear a black glove on his right hand, the other on his left. And that’s what they did. The photo of John Carlos and Tommie Smith holding up one black gloved hand has become one of the most iconic in American history, and perhaps THE most iconic in Olympic history. Peter Norman stands to the left, an unclear look on his face. What you cannot see in the photo is that Norman was wearing a badge that read: “Olympic Project For Human Rights,” which he had borrowed from Paul Hoffman, a white member of the U.S. rowing team.
“I believe that every man is born equal and should be treated that way,” Norman told reporters after the ceremony.
You probably know that all hell broke loose after that. The IOC immediately suspended Carlos and Smith from the U.S. team and expelled them from the Olympic village. The two men received much abuse when they came home — including death threats — and were ostracized for a long while. But, like I say, you probably knew that.
What you may not have known — what I did not know — was that Peter Norman also went through his own personal turmoil after Mexico City. He was vaguely reprimanded by the Australian Olympic Committee for his support of Carlos and Smith — according to The Guardian, Australia’s chef de mission, Julius Patching, told Norman, “They’re screaming out for your blood, so consider yourself severely reprimanded. Now, you got any tickets for the hockey today?”
But the press was not so accommodating. They tore Norman to shreds. Back home, Norman was banned from track for a couple of years. And even after he returned, though he was by far Australia’s top sprinter and one of the best in the world, they did not send him to the Olympics in Munich four years later.
Norman struggled with life after that. His nephew, Matt Norman, did a documentary called “Salute” about him, and did not hide from his uncle’s alcoholism, his addiction to painkillers or his depression. Though in America, there has been a softening of feelings about Carlos and Smith’s gesture — with many people believing that their statement was honorable and brave — it was different for Peter Norman. He was largely ignored. Even when the Olympics came to Sydney in 2000, there was no public effort to remember him or his efforts. When a statue was built at San Jose State to honor the protest, Norman came to speak … but in the statue his spot on the medal podium is empty, a place for visitors to stand and have their photos taken.
Matt Norman told The Age that his uncle did not regret how it all turned out. In fact, the one thing that saddened him in later years was that when he lost his driver’s license, the local paper ran the iconic photo with the news story. Norman was sick to think that his own failures would reflect poorly on Carlos and Smith, two men he idolized and adored.
Peter Norman died in 2006. He was 64 years old. This weekend, the BBC showed footage of his funeral. They showed John Carlos and Tommie Smith carrying Peter Norman’s casket.