The Australian in one of the 20th century’s most famous images is a mystery to many of us. Philippa Hawker meets the nephew trying to change that.
FROM early childhood, Matt Norman knew his uncle was famous. “But that was because I thought he was Santa,” he says. Before long, he realised the red suit and white beard his uncle wore every Christmas was not what made him special.
What was significant was an Olympic medal and a remarkable place in history. In the poignant documentary Salute, Norman explores that place.
Peter Norman is one of three athletes in an iconic photograph taken at the Olympics in Mexico City, 1968. He had won silver for Australia in the 200 metres. At the presentation, two African-American runners — the winner, Tommie Smith, and the bronze-medallist, John Carlos — staged a silent protest against racial discrimination and poverty. They bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists, the salute of the Black Panthers.
Peter Norman, who had been notified of their action and had offered his support, wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on his tracksuit. The photograph is an enduring image of the 20th century.
“It’s been ranked third, behind the moon landing and the Kennedy assassination,” says Matt Norman.
But the picture and the protest have a complex legacy. As the Beijing Games near, Salute is a timely reminder of continuing Olympic sensitivity to dissent.
In 1968, the gesture provoked widespread outrage. Smith and Carlos were sent home.
In Salute, they talk about the threats and pressure that took their toll on them and their families. Norman, too, was criticised for his part. He was not selected for the Munich Games in 1972, even though he had run qualifying times for both the 100 and 200 metres.
Matt Norman’s grandmother — Peter’s mother — bought the family a Guinness Book of Records every year, “mainly, I think, because Peter was in it”.
But Matt was taken aback to discover how few Australians knew the identity of the white man in the famous photo. In a sports-mad country like Australia, he felt, Peter Norman should be doubly celebrated. “He is not recognised for the incredible times that he did. And he’s not recognised for standing up for something that he thought was right. He was sacrificing glory for a greater cause, and we need people like that.”
He was shocked by the Munich omission and the fact that his uncle was not part of the celebrations and ceremonies at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Then, after Peter Norman’s sudden death in 2006, the funding bodies came on board with post-production financing. Now distributor Paramount has thrown its weight behind the film, giving it a cinema release.
Matt, a Melbourne actor in TV and film (Blue Heelers, Stingers, Neighbours, Ghost Rider), originally planned to write a drama about the events of 1968. “I thought, ‘I can hang out with Peter for free, bring a camera along, do some research and use that to write a script.”‘
But it soon became clear he had the material for a documentary. The Emmy Award-winning Fists of Freedom (1999) told the story but focused entirely on Smith — neither Carlos nor Norman was interviewed. It was important, Matt felt, to talk to all three men. Being Norman’s nephew, he says, gave him access to Carlos and Smith and allowed him to bring the three together to talk freely, rather than relying on “the script” they had become accustomed to reciting.
Salute is about sport and politics, choices and decisive moments, enduring friendships and differing versions of events. One of the striking things in the film is the way the protest united the three men and kept them close over the years. But it was a complicated relationship: according to Matt Norman, Carlos and Smith do not get on. But they are at one in regarding what they did on that day as important, and in feeling that Peter Norman was part of it. They gave eulogies at his funeral and were pallbearers.
Norman is a memorable presence in the film, a mixture of passionate seriousness and dry, easygoing wit. In the era of the professional athlete, his achievements seem all the more remarkable: he first discovered his sprinting ability by chance, when he was asked to fill in at the last minute in an athletics club relay.
He was an apprentice butcher who became a teacher and, at the end of his life, worked for the Victorian Department of Sport and Recreation. In Mexico City, he rose to the occasion, coming out of nowhere in a race in which he was not expected to be a contender. When Smith and Carlos told him about their intention to protest, he took that opportunity, too. He even helped them manage a small but crucial detail. They both intended to wear black gloves, but Carlos had left his behind. Wear one each, the ever-practical Norman suggested.
Matt Norman is at pains to avoid a sentimental view of his uncle. “Peter would be the first to acknowledge the fact that he’s not an angel — he had issues with alcohol, he got addicted to painkillers (when he developed gangrene after an operation on his Achilles tendon) but he didn’t regret things.”
When his uncle lost his licence he was upset that photos of the protest were run in news stories. His stupid mistake, Peter Norman felt, should not have reflected on Smith and Carlos.
Recently, Matt Norman showed Salute to his uncle’s family and friends, at a screening where his obvious elation was mixed with a distinct sense of loss. When he started, six years ago, he had no idea how long the film would take and how difficult the process would be. “And I didn’t expect Peter to die, that wasn’t part of the plan. The plan was to have him recognised while he was alive.”
Salute is showing at the Nova, Rivoli, Europa Southland, Palace Como and Palace Brighton cinemas from Thursday.
“SALUTE” to a champion,