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Everyone Ignored The White Man In This Famous Photo. 48 Years Later, The Real Story Emerges.

January 19, 2017 - By Diana M. Nichols

When you think of world-famous Olympic athletes, the name Peter Norman probably does not come to mind. But that’s soon about to change.

At the 1968 Summer Olympics, Tommie Smith broke records when he won the 200-meter dash finals and gold medal in 19.83 seconds. But his Black Power salute, alongside fellow runner John Carlos atop the medal podium, caused a lot of controversy at the time. The photo capturing the salute remains a symbolic moment in cultural and political history.

What many people failed to notice, for many years, is the white man in that photo. The man, Peter Norman, was an unknown sprinter at the time.

In the photo, Norman stands completely still, seemingly void of any and all emotion. When people did notice this man standing among Smith and Carlos, they were indifferent to his “random” or “misplaced” presence on the podium.

But Italian writer Riccardo Gazzaniga recently uncovered the stunning truth behind Peter Norman’s identity. Thanks to his brilliant article entitled “The White Man in That Photo,” Peter Norman is now being hailed as “the third hero of that night in 1968,” and his story is leaving the world completely fascinated and inspired.

With permission from Gazzaniga, LittleThings reprints Gazzaniga’s essay in full, originally published on Films For Action, below.

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Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. 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, and it certainly deceived me for a long time.

I always saw the photo as a powerful image of two barefoot black men, with their heads bowed, their black-gloved fists in the air while the US National Anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” played. It was a strong symbolic gesture — taking a stand for African American civil rights in a year of tragedies that included the death of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.

It’s a historic photo of two men of color. For this reason I never really paid attention to the other man, white, like me, motionless on the second step of the medal podium. I considered him as a random presence, an extra in Carlos and Smith’s moment, or a kind of intruder. Actually, I even thought that that guy — who seemed to be just a simpering Englishman — represented, in his icy immobility, the will to resist the change that Smith and Carlos were invoking in their silent protest. But I was wrong.

Thanks to an old article by Gianni Mura, today I discovered the truth: that white man in the photo is, perhaps, the third hero of that night in 1968. His name was Peter Norman, he was an Australian that arrived in the 200 meters finals after having ran an amazing 20.22 in the semi finals. Only the two Americans, Tommie “The Jet” Smith and John Carlos had done better: 20.14 and 20.12, respectively.

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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. “We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat, and he 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 before going up on the podium they realized they only had one pair of black gloves. “Take one each,” Norman suggested. Smith and Carlos took his advice.

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!”

Smith responded that he didn’t, also because he would not be denied his badge. There happened to be a white American rower with them, Paul Hoffman, an activist with the Olympic Project for Human Rights. 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, preserved in the power of the photo. “I couldn’t see what was happening,” Norman recounts, “[but] I had known they had gone through with their plans when a voice in the crowd sang the American anthem but then faded to nothing. The stadium went quiet.”


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