20 October, 2008

a different kind of hero.

"Forty years ago, two black Americans, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, won gold and bronze medals in the 200m final at the Mexico Olympics, and used their time on the victory podium to protest with a Black Power salute." (BBC News)

Smith and Carlos were protesting racial inequality. They took the platform they had been given, as medalists in the Olympics, to stand for something affecting them at home. For their "protest" they were suspended from the U.S. team and both received death threats against their families.

And what about the third man?

Peter Norman, the silver medalist from Australia protested in his own way. He suggested to the two Americans they share gloves when one discovered he had forgotten his. He also wore a badge from The Olympic Project for Human Rights. He asked for the badge from another US athlete he saw wearing it. The OPHR existed to protest racial segregation in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Norman was "seen as a trouble-maker who had lent a hand to those desecrators of the Olympic flag, he was ostracised by the Australian establishment. Despite qualifying 13 times over and being ranked fifth in the world, he was not sent to the following Munich games, where Australia had no sprinter for the first time in the Olympics." (BBC)

He was denied the right to walk in the Sydney Olympics in 2000, 32 years after the incident! He was accepted by the U.S. team and asked to come hang out with them in the Olympic Village.

Peter died in 2006 still ostracized by his country.

Why is Peter a hero? I rarely use the term because it is so overused. But I tend to root for minor players in history who are overlooked. He didn't have to get involved. Carlos said later, "Peter didn't have to take that button [badge], Peter wasn't from the United States, Peter was not a black man, Peter didn't have to feel what I felt, but he was a man." It was a momentary decision, but it shaped his life. He saw that someone was being treated unfairly and made a deliberate decision to do something. He did what he could do then and there.

We might never know his motivation. Given that Peter stayed close to the other two men (they were pallbearers at his funeral) there had to be something deeper. Peter was against the Australia's pro-while immigration policies that plagued the country at the time.

All people have dignity, all people are equal - worth the same, worthy of the same rights and protections and considerations, regardless of sex, race, economic income, etc. And to do something when it doesn't involve you and you could just as easily walk (or stand) by - it takes courage, especially when it will cost you something. Peter was never able to compete again. He was never able to represent his country or take pride for what he did that day (winning a silver medal in record time).

Peter is a hero because he did was what right.

A movie called Salute which tells the story. Made by Peter's son it tells the complete story of the incident. There should be more athletes like them. I wished someone had done something in Beijing, but men like Tommie, John and Peter are rare...

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© Amanda Lunday