By Bonny Ibhawoh,
When I think about human rights in Australia, I don’t unsually think “movies.” But out of Australia comes a great documentary about the the meaning of true courage and power of moral conviction. “SALUTE is the story of how a white Australian sprinter became a hero in black America, even as he was virtually written out of the annals of Australia’s Olympic history. On one level, it is a story of real idealism, the youthful sort that the Olympics are supposed to be about; on another, it’s about the corruption and betrayal of those ideals in the way the Olympics are actually run.”
I don’t know how readily availbale this move is outside Australia, but I highly recommend it for anyone interested in issues of human rights and social justice. 4 stars out of 5.
Watch a Documentaray Trailer
Peter Norman didn’t actually do very much, except run the race of his life in the men’s 200-metre track final in Mexico in October 1968. He came second in 20.06 seconds, which is still the fastest time any Australian has run the distance, and half a second faster than anything he had run before.
The winner was Tommie Smith, a tall black American from Texas. Third was John Carlos, another tall black American. The race itself was worth a documentary because it was full of drama, controversy and psychological warfare, much of it practised by the extremely crafty Norman, but it’s what happened afterwards that everyone remembers.
Smith and Carlos turned on the victory dais and raised a gloved fist in a Black Power salute, as Norman stood beside them. He was the white guy in the photograph that made front page all round the world the next day. Everyone soon forgot his name, except Smith and Carlos, a lot of other black American athletes, and a couple of Australian Olympic officials.
In practical terms, all Norman did was wear a badge that simply said “Olympic Project for Human Rights”, an organisation made up largely of African-American athletes protesting against racism in sport. In 1967, the project had proposed that all black American athletes boycott the Mexico Olympics, a move that never came off. Wearing their badge was choosing a side, though.
The film makes clear why Norman chose that side. He was a devout Christian, raised in the Salvation Army. There is a picture of him at the time, a handsome, open-faced young man with sandy hair, in a tracksuit that says “Jesus saves”. He believed passionately in equality for all, regardless of colour, creed or religion – the Olympic code.
A few minutes before the victory ceremony, the two black runners told Norman what they were planning to do. He told them he agreed, which surprised them. Norman asked what he could do in support; he didn’t think it would be appropriate to raise his fist, so they borrowed a badge from an American rower. All three winners wore the badges on the dais.Afterwards, when all hell broke loose and Smith and Carlos were sent home, banned for life by an apoplectic president of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, the media asked Norman if he supported them. He said he did, and he criticised the White Australia Policy. Big mistake.
Julius (Judy) Patching, the manager of the Australian Olympic team, cautioned him at the Olympics, but Australian officials reserved their real punishment for later.
In 1972, despite being the fifth-fastest man in the world over 200 metres, Norman was left out of Australia’s team for the Munich Olympics. They took no sprinters at all, rather than take him. Even 28 years later, as every extant Australian Olympian was said to have been invited to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, they still managed to forget to invite him.
One of the most telling aspects of Salute is that even in 2000, many black American athletes had not forgotten. They flew Norman to Sydney and made him a guest of honour at Michael Johnson’s birthday party.
Johnson, still the fastest man ever over 200 metres, hugged him on their first meeting and told him he was a personal hero.
Salute could easily be seen as the worst kind of hagiography, because it’s Matt Norman’s tribute to his uncle, Peter. There’s certainly a lot of misty-eyed emotion, pushed to breaking point by an overused score, and it’s made worse by Norman’s reluctance to leave anything out – even badly recorded sound and image – but that’s beside the point. Even though Peter Norman was a bystander to history, the eddies of that history are far richer than we might have expected, and Matt Norman manages to find them all.
The film has an extraordinary sense of the moral intricacies of the situation, and the hypocrisies. Peter Norman could have chosen not to stand up that day. The other two warned him, because they were concerned he might suffer backlash, which indeed he did. He was then forgotten; rubbed out, in fact, by the grubby little men who always seem to end up running the Olympics.
Most Australians only heard of Peter Norman when two very tall black men turned up for his funeral in Melbourne in 2006. The film is finally incredibly moving because of their testimony. Here, just in time, is a great lesson in what the Olympics are supposed to be about.
Paul Byrnes, Sydney Morning Herald, July 17, 2008