Everybody knows this photo. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. It is absolutely a powerful photo of two barefoot black men, their black-gloved fists in the air while the US National Anthem played. It was a strong symbolic gesture – taking a stand for African American civil rights.
Nobody really paid attention to the other man, white athlete, standing on the second step of the podium. He was considered as a random presence in this historical moment. Actually, this man kind of represented the possible resistance to the change that Smith and Carlos were creating in their protest. But we have to face a simple truth: that white man in the photo is, perhaps, the biggest hero of that night in 1968. His name was Peter Norman; he was an Australian that arrived in the 200 meters finals after having run an amazing 20.22 in the semi finals. The outsider Peter Norman runs the race of a lifetime, improving on his time yet again. He finishes the race at 20.06, his best performance ever, an Australian record that still stands today, 47 years later.
It didn’t take long after the race to realize that something big was about to take place on the medal podium. Smith and Carlos decided they wanted to show the entire world what their fight for human rights looked like, and word spread among the athletes. Norman was a white man from Australia, a country that had strict apartheid laws, almost as strict as South Africa. There was tension and protests in the streets of Australia following heavy restrictions on non-white immigration and discriminatory laws against aboriginal people, some of which consisted of forced adoptions of native children to white families.
The two Americans had asked Norman if he believed in human rights. Norman said he did. They asked him if he believed in God, and he, who had been in the Salvation Army, said he believed strongly in God. And he finally said “I’ll stand with you” – remembers John Carlos – “I expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes, but instead we saw love.”
Smith and Carlos had decided to get up on the stadium wearing the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, a movement of athletes in support of the battle for equality.
They would receive their medals barefoot, representing the poverty facing people of color. They would wear the famous black gloves, a symbol of the Black Panthers’ cause. But then Norman did something else. “I believe in what you believe. Do you have another one of those for me?” he asked pointing to the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the others’ chests. “That way I can show my support in your cause.” Smith admitted to being astonished, ruminating: “Who is this white Australian guy? He won his silver medal, can’t he just take it and that be enough!”. After hearing everything he thought “if a white Australian is going to ask me for an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, then by God he would have one!” Hoffman didn’t hesitate: “I gave him the only one I had: mine”. The three went out on the field and got up on the podium: the rest is history. in your browser.
Smith and Carlos were immediately suspended from the American Olympic team and expelled from the Olympic Village, while the rower Hoffman was accused of conspiracy. Once home the two fastest men in the world faced heavy repercussions and death threats.
But time, in the end, proved that they had been right and they became champions in the fight for human rights. With their image restored they collaborated with the American team of Athletics, and a statue of them was erected at the San Jose State University. Peter Norman is absent from this statue. His absence from the podium step seems an epitaph of a hero that no one ever noticed. A forgotten athlete deleted from history, even in Australia, his own country.
Well, in a world, where each individual or each brand is trying to make something extraordinary to create the buzz, we definitely forget about those who claim or stand for something on a long run, with humility and quietness. I want to talk about the brands that are sharing their values or getting involved in some bigger purpose in a soft way. The ones that are building their aspiration through participation and empathy, the ones with a simple and sustainable point of view on the world they’re living in. The buzz might be strong but we have to admit that it might be very futile as well, very focused but ephemeral. We forget too much about the true supporters of causes and ideas. We have to talk about them more, to give them more exposure and more credit. They disserve respect and engagement, as much as the loud talkers.
“I couldn’t see why a black man couldn’t drink the same water from a water fountain, take the same bus or go to the same school as a white man. There was a social injustice that I couldn’t do anything for from where I was, but I certainly hated it.”
It has been said that sharing my silver medal with that incident on the victory dais detracted from my performance. On the contrary. I have to confess, I was rather proud to be part of it”. If you believe in something, sometimes you have to build it out of the ambient noise. And hopefully, it will pay off.
Source: this article uses extensively some extracts of the text written by Italian writer Riccardo Gazzaniga who allowed sharing the story on http://griotmag.com/en/white-man-in-that-photo/