Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

December 24, 2008


Today I dragged my mum, sister, niece and nephew along to San Jose University to see Rigo 23’s statue of two former students. The statue portrays Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ human rights protest at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. What did these two men do? Oh, apart from win Gold and Bronze medals in the 200m? They removed their shoes and raised black-gloved fists, heads bowed, in a dignified and silent protest on behalf of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. That’s all. For this, they were expelled from the games.

The man behind their expulsion was Avery Brundage, the IOC president; a man who in 1936, as President of the United States Olympic Committee, saw nothing wrong in the Nazi salutes on display at the Berlin Olympics. Oh, he also thought the Olympics was no place for women. As far as every great and inspirational story has obstacles and, bluntly, baddies, they don’t come much badder than Avery.

Tigerlily Films made a documentary for BBC4 called Black Power Salute. The director, Geoff Small, talks about it here. Please read it. You’ll like it. It’ll take you a couple of minutes; roughly 6 times the time it took Tommie and John to change the world.

tommie-smith-john-carlosThe silver medal was won by Peter Norman; a white Australian. As an opponent of Australian policies specifically designed to restrict non-white immigration (and as a decent human being), Peter wanted to do his bit at the medal ceremony to show support for OPHR’s stand against racial segregation and racism in general. Maybe to the surprise of Tommie and John, he borrowed an OPHR badge from Paul Hoffman, a (white) member of the US rowing team. He wore a badge, that’s all. And for this he too was punished.

“While he didn’t raise a fist, he did lend a hand.” Tommie Smith.

Peter Norman is missing from the sculpture. Some, it seems, have been offended by this. They shouldn’t be. Peter attended the unveiling, and when he died in 2006 both Tommie and John were pallbearers at his funeral. John Carlos said, “Peter was a piece of my life… I was his brother. He was my brother. That’s all you have to know.”

And the sculpture acknowledges Peter’s contribution in the most moving of ways. In his place is the inscription; “Fellow athlete Australian Peter Norman stood here in solidarity. Take a stand.”

We can all be Peter Normans. Stand amongst giants. Lend a hand. Take a stand.