Who is Australia’s fastest sprinter ever? At which Olympic Games did he win the silver medal? Why is he a hero for many US track athletes? Don’t know, don’t care? Well watch Salute and you will.
Peter Norman found himself in the middle of the Black civil rights struggle at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. After coming second in the 200 metres final – in a time of 20:00 seconds, still the Australian record – he was on the winners’ dais between two African-Americans, first-placed Tommie Smith and bronze-medalist John Carlos.
Smith and Carlos shared a set of black gloves and while the “Star Spangled Banner” played each raised a clenched fist and put their heads down. It is one of the most celebrated images of the 20th Century and a visual highlight of the Black struggle for equality.
It was Peter Norman who suggested they share the gloves when Smith forgot to bring his pair, and Norman joined them wearing a badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
Salute celebrates Peter Norman’s humanity and courage. It shows a modest man who is a hero still to African-American track and field athletes, yet almost unknown here.
It shows the vindictiveness of Australian track and field officials who stopped him going to the Munich Olympics in 1972, despite having run thirteen 200m and five 100m qualifying times that year. They chose to have no Australian competitor rather than allow Norman a chance to represent them after his solidarity action.
Norman was made a non-person, excluded even from the group of retired star Australian athletes participating at the Sydney Olympics, 32 years later!
Norman’s anti-racism came from his Salvation Army parents. He couldn’t understand discrimination. He was a working class boy who discovered he could sprint when he was asked to step in as the last of a 4×100 relay team at a Sunday school athletics meet.
Norman followed the sports news and current affairs as the struggles of the 1960s developed. On April 4, just months before the Olympics, Martin Luther King was assasinated in Memphis, sparking a week of riots and repression across US cities. But Norman could have no idea of what he was about to participate in.
As the Olympics came closer there was discussion of a Black boycott, but instead US athletes decided to each choose their own way to talk about the racism and police brutality at home.
Meanwhile Mexican students protested the grotesque waste of resources on the sporting carnival while the country’s poor struggled to put food in their mouths. To quell the embarrassment the riot police and the army murdered two thousand students in the weeks before the opening ceremony! The athletes and international media were kept in the dark about the scale of the massacre.
The ABC At the Movies duo, Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, criticise Salute as “leaden” and repetitive, and with unnecessary footage, but the context of the struggle these speeches and images give are what changes a fascinating story into an inspiring documentary.
The film-maker is actor Matt Norman, the sprinter’s nephew. He notes in the At the Movies web comments that viewers are “voting with their tears.”
In Sydney we are lucky to have the dais scene in a mural next to Macdonaldtown Station. Thoughtlessly Cityrail has recently built a barrier obscuring it from commuters.
With the Beijing Olympics proving sport cannot exist outside its social and political context, Salute introduces the post-68 generations to this beautiful story.