One square meter of God’s earth

Yesterday I finished the superb documentary Saluteabout the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in protest of racism, and in solidarity with all black people. Their story is well known- the Olympic establishment reviled them, they were pushed out of the sport, and some purists maintain that by bringing politics into the games they tainted the incredible 200m times that they ran. Their image has been rehabilitated over time, especially as the Civil Rights movement became championed by a larger and larger segment of the American population.

The director, Matt Norman, focuses plenty of attention on the events surrounding the salute, such as the planned boycott by the black athletes, the Tlatelolco massacre that happened just before the games, and the controversial conduct of International Olympic Committee President Avery Brudage.

From left: Peter Norman, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos

However, he has another agenda that he weaves in, and gives the documentary some of its most powerful moments. Matt is the nephew of Peter Norman, the white man sitting on the silver medal stand. Having seen this photo, one of those essential and iconic photos that defines the 1960s and the 20th century as a whole, the unanswered questions abound how did he fit into this? Did he know what they were going to do? Was he angry for being overshadowed?

The documentary draws power from two sources. The first is Peter Norman’s recollections, told in a measured Australian accent that give him a sense of presence that many sports documentary subjects lack. The second source is Smith and Carlos digging into the sense of duty and pride they still feel for having never backed down from their statement. All three have grown old and grey (Norman died in 2006, shortly after the documentary was filmed), but when they are together around a table there are fireworks.

Australia in the 1960s had a system of racial separation that would have gotten a huge amount of global scorn had it not been overshadowed by apartheid South Africa. The indigenous people were denied education and work, and most notably the Stolen Generations; Aborigine children were taken from their parents and placed in white-run schools where their original culture was suppressed. At the time of the games, this was still a common phenomenon.

Norman did not buy into the racial supremacy at all. Born into a devoutly Christian family with a history of service in the Salvation Army, he was taught that all people are created equal, regardless of their race. Thus when Carlos and Smith approached him about their plan, Norman not only endorsed it but asked to participate. In the picture all three men wear the white buttons of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a black-led organization dedicated to fighting oppression and racism.

While the discrimination against the two Americans is well-known, Norman’s secondary participation in the salute (and his later criticism of the White Australia policy) led to him being erased from Australian sporting history. Despite running a qualifying time for the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Australian Olympic Committee did not take him. In fact, by doing so they for the first time had no sprinters in the games, which in retrospective is somewhat of an embarrassment. Despite claims that all living Australian Olympians would be at the 2000 Sydney Games, he was not invited. His invite came from a country where he is far more respected:

As soon as the U.S. delegation discovered that Norman wasn’t going to attend, the United States Olympic Committee arranged to fly him to Sydney to be part of their delegation. He was invited to the birthday party of 200 and 400-meter runner Michael Johnson, where he was to be the guest of honor. Johnson took his hand, hugged him and declared that Norman was one of his biggest heroes. (source)

As one of the interviewed athletes recalled, Norman did not even need to introduce himself. Johnson knew who he was- not only for his solidarity with the American black community, but because his fantastic 200m run is one of the greatest in history. His time of 20.06 seconds is forty-five years later still the Australian record, and would have won gold at Sydney. The appreciation of Norman as a national hero will likely never come, but last year he was given a posthumous apology- though as an editorial bitterly points out, it came from the political establishment rather than the national Olympic authorities.

The title of this post comes from a statement made by Norman about the experience of being on the podium. Each medalist is given about a square meter of God’s earth, he says, and what he chooses to do with it is their right. They have earned it.

Norman’s last appearance with Carlos and Smith (who he’d become close friends with since the games, with Carlos even calling him his brother) was at the dedication of a massive statute of the salute on the grounds of San Jose State University, which both attended. It is part of the wave of appreciation for how brave the salute was, and how iconic it has become. For both of them, they got their monument.

It’s time for Norman to get his own.

Author: AJM

Writer, sociologist, Unitarian Universalist.

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