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On doing the right thing

A quick post, but a beautiful story that I wanted to share.

You’ve seen the image from the 1968 Olympics. Two American runners – Tommie Smith and John Carlos – stand on the medals stand, bow their heads and raise their fists in the air in a black power salute. They were promptly ejected from the US olympic team, but the image of their protest is one of the lasting icons of the Olympics and a powerful statement about race relations in America – and globally – in the 1960s.

In an excellent piece for the BBC, Caroline Frost reminds us that there was a third man on the podium, silver medalist Peter Norman. An Australian caucasian, Norman had no special reason to be in solidarity with his co-medalists. But he was – it was he who suggested Smith and Carlos share a pair of black gloves when Carlos discovered he’d forgotten his. And Norman wore a badge from the Olympic Project for Human Rights which Smith and Carlos had given him.

The reaction from the Australian athletic community was swift and harsh. Norman was censured, and was left off the subsequent Olympic team. 32 years later, when the Olympics came to Sydney, he was the only Aussie olympian not invited to participate in the opening ceremony. The US olympians embraced him instead, inviting him to stay in their lodgings during the game and honoring his role in the civil rights struggle. When he died two years ago, Carlos and Smith travelled to Melbourne to serve as his pallbearers and to offer eulogies.

The comment thread on Frost’s story is interesting as well. Some Aussies are saddened to learn about a sad chapter of their Olympic history; some Americans (myself included) are proud that our athletes honored Norman’s solidarity. John Turnbull from the UK offers a contrasting point of view:

People should be careful how they conduct themselves when representing their country. Something that a lot of international sportsmen and women all too easily forget. The moment you accept the invitation to wear that jersey, and represent your nation, you must accept that your personal views are no longer your primary objective. I have great respect for men and women who stand up for their beliefs, but I wonder how much more Mr Norman could have achieved if he had become a spokesperson for the subject and used his fame from the Olympics as a springboard, rather than ending his career (albeit unfairly) under a shadow.

Don’t especially agree with that point of view, but thought this was one of those well-crafted stories that does a great job of inviting reactions, positive and negative.

2 thoughts on “On doing the right thing”

  1. I can’t agree with Turnbull’s view on this one. I think his criticism should be more directed at Australian institutions, policies, and government.

    All Norman did was wear patch saying he supports human rights. Many things happened in 1968- it was an amazing year. How was Norman supposed to know about the backlash he would get from Australian government that would last this long? Mohammad Ali went to jail and lost his title after refusing to go fight in Vietnam War and now he is still loved all around the world. I believe in our an unjust world people pay the price for doing what they feel is “right” and as long their action doesn’t harm other people we should respect their bravery.

    There are athletes committing worse offensives like using drugs and cheating. I didn’t know about the guy, so this educational. I admire is noble gesture and his support for human rights and justice.

  2. Frankly it is amazing to me that there was such an outcry at all from the “establishment.”

    After all, the protest offered here was very controlled and dignified.

    It’s not like we were ready to elect Barack Obama in 1968.

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