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A foundational 'rock' of the Civil Rights movement

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- My generation almost certainly remembers the most iconic photograph captured at the medal ceremony for the men's 200 meters at the 1968 Mexico Olympics where U.S. sprinter Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood defiantly, head bowed, black-gloved fist thrust high into the air, an act that scandalized the Olympics. As a result, Smith and Carlos were sent home in disgrace and banned from the Olympics for life. Although this incident made them heroes in the black community, the residual effect was devastating to both of them in the years that followed.

Yet few know that the man standing in front of both of them, the Australian sprinter Peter Norman who shocked everyone by powering past Carlos and winning the silver medal, played his own crucial role in sporting and civil rights history. He did not raise his fist but he lent a hand. On his left breast he wore a small badge that read: "Olympic Project for Human Rights." This organization was set up a year previously opposed to racism in sport. The badge was enough to effectively end Norman's career. He returned home to Australia a pariah, suffering sanction and ridicule as the Black Power salute's forgotten man. He never ran in the Olympics again.

Smith and Carlos had already decided to make a statement on the podium. They were to wear black gloves. But Carlos left his at the Olympic village. It was Norman who suggested they should wear one each on alternate hands. Yet Norman had no means of making a protest of his own. So he asked a member of the U.S. rowing team for his "Olympic Project for Human Rights" badge, so that he could show solidarity. As they faced the flags from the medal stand, Peter had no real way of knowing what was going on behind him. "I had only 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."

When one thinks about it, Norman had no vested interest in this particular endeavor. He is a white man and the American Civil Rights movement was an entire ocean away. However, he believed that all people had dignity and worth and said in one interview, "Because I was sympathetic to their cause I became part of it."

In the end, it cost him greatly. Few people recognize that his run that day in Mexico City gave him a better Olympic record than any other male Australian sprinter in history. The time he ran in the final, 20.06 seconds, remained the Australian 200m record for decades to follow. That race-time would have won the 200m gold medal at subsequent Olympics in Montreal (1976), Moscow (1980) and Sydney (2000).

Last month was the anniversary of Norman's passing. He died of a heart attack on Oct. 9, 2006. At the funeral both Smith and Carlos gave the eulogy, where they announced that the U.S. Track and Field association had declared the day of his death to be "Peter Norman Day" -- the first time in the organization's history that such an honor had been bestowed on a foreign athlete. For them, Norman was a hero, "A lone soldier," according to Carlos, for his determined stand against racism.

Let us never forget the indelible impact of Norman on sports, politics and the world in which we live.

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