'68 protest more than a memory
By Kevin B. Blackistone / The Dallas Morning News
SYDNEY, Australia Peter Norman and I were chatting Thursday in a hallway outside the luxury box at Olympic Stadium where he planned to watch the men's 200 final. A woman in chef's togs walked by. She was stopped in her tracks by the emblem on Norman's white golf shirt. It was the crest of USA Track and Field and around it was written: "Olympic Team 1968 30th Reunion."
"Excuse me," the woman said to Norman. "Who are you? Are you someone famous?"
After a moment of pulling the woman's leg, Norman confessed his identity.
He asked her if she'd ever seen the photo of the black fellows on the Olympic medal stand with black-gloved fists raised over their heads.
"Yeah, sure," she said.
"Well," he said, "I was the short chubby white guy beside them."
But Norman recalled that famous day 32 years ago with Tommie Smith and John Carlos as if it were yesterday.
"Once we were downstairs, the guys told me what was going to happen," Norman said, remembering the moments just before the three medal winners were led out of the room beneath the stadium and out onto the track for the medal ceremony.
Norman said he saw the black gloves. Smith was prepared to don both until Norman said he suggested the pair share them.
"I actually thought John would wear the left one on his right hand," Norman said.
Norman said he asked the two if there was anything he could do to support them.
"I asked John if he had a spare badge for their human rights organization," Norman said. "John said he didn't, but on the way to the victory stand, John called over the fence to one of his friends who had a badge. He took the badge from him and gave it to me."
Norman slapped it on his warm-up jacket over his heart. The trio went to the medal stand. They were given their medallions. The U.S. national anthem began to play.
"There was a guy in the stands who was singing the U.S. anthem so loud it boomed right across the track," Norman said. "We got about four bars in, and he just tailed off."
Smith and Carlos were standing with heads bowed and fists punching the night like thunderbolts.
"Every emotion turned loose on them," Norman said. "There was vocal retaliation."
The Americans were told not long afterward to get out of town, which they did.
"The next morning ... the chef de mission [or team leader] called me into his office," Norman said. "He asked what happened out there. He said some of the press wanted me reprimanded [for wearing the badge]."
Norman said, however, that he was spared any harsh punishment from his Olympic team bosses. He didn't wind up a target of much displeasure from his countrymen, either.
"I didn't get off nearly as bad as the other guys did," Norman said. "People don't realize that for those two guys, they sacrificed their lives for a cause they believed in. And it was peaceful and nonviolent."
Norman was never ostracized back home as Smith and Carlos were in the United States. Norman lives in Melbourne, Australia, nowadays, where he works with the Department of Sport and Recreation. He hosted a training session for Marion Jones and some other U.S. Olympic sprinters before they traveled to Sydney.
He said he's kept in touch over the years with the more famous figures in that photo, too. He said he's since lost the badge Carlos awarded him but has several copies of the picture they all made.
"To be involved in a very small way in history like that, it lives with you forever," Norman said. "It's a bond."
He's proud of it, too, even if most others have long forgotten about the white fellow in the left-hand side of the famous, or infamous, photo, depending on your political persuasion.
It is only every now and then, Norman said, that someone asks him if he was the other guy in the picture. It's an opportunity he appreciates to tell them the story, as he did Thursday with the young woman in chef's togs.
She thanked him excitedly and went on her way before returning a few minutes later with a napkin and pen in hand.
"May I have your autograph," she asked Norman.
Peter Norman was famous again for at least a moment.
Kevin B. Blackistone can be reached at 214-977-8780 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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