Mike Rowbottom @ITG

In the space of the last month there have been significant official acknowledgements of the role played by the three athletes who took part in the most infamous - at the time - and now famous podium protests - Tommie Smith and John Carlos of the United States, and Australia’s Peter Norman.

On Friday (November 1), in Colorado Springs, the two American sprinters - whose single-fisted, black-gloved salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics to highlight the plight of victimised black citizens in their society led to them being expelled from the US team and ostracised for the rest of their careers - were inducted into the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) Hall of Fame.

That recognition followed the unveiling in Melbourne of a statue to Norman, whose support for the cause espoused by the two black Americans also earned him official disfavour and castigation over the ensuing years.

But even as the USOPC bestowed its highest honour upon their gold and bronze medallists of 51-years-ago, it was also contemplating harsh punishments for other American competitors who make similar principled stands on such occasions in future.

Two American athletes – fencer Race Imboden and hammer thrower Gwen Berry - are currently on probation with the USOPC for podium protests they conducted during this summer’s Pan American Games in Lima.

Imboden, an Olympic bronze medallist,knelt during the American national anthem to underline his support for change in his home country, citing racism, gun control, mistreatment of immigrants and opposition to President Donald Trump.

Berry later staged her own protest, raising her right fist at the conclusion of her medal ceremony.

Olympic bronze medallist US fencer Race Imboden makes his protest against racism and gun laws back home after winning team gold at this summer's Pan American Games ©Getty Images
Olympic bronze medallist US fencer Race Imboden makes his protest against racism and gun laws back home after winning team gold at this summer's Pan American Games ©Getty Images

When the Mexico City Olympics took place in 1968 there were widespread protests in the US against the Vietnam War and in support of civil rights.

In April, Martin Luther-King, charismatic head of the American civil rights movement, who had used non-violent means for years to campaign against racial inequality, was shot dead. That led to riots in 125 US cities including Baltimore, Washington D.C. and New York City. National politics were brutally jolted in June by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy as he ran for the Presidency.

The sporting careers of Smith and Carlos were effectively ended the moment they climbed onto the podium after winning gold and bronze respectively in the men’s 200 metres at Mexico City 1968. 

The original plan had been to each have a pair of black gloves but they had left a pair in the athletes’ village, and it was at the suggestion of the Australian silver medallist, Norman,  that they took a single glove each.

As they took to the podium, Smith and Carlos were both shoeless but wearing black socks – something they later explained was to represent black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride, Carlos had his tracksuit top undone to show solidarity with all blue collar workers in the US and also wore a necklace of beads which he subsequently described as being "for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred".

As the Star Spangled Banner national anthem played, both men bowed their heads and raised their gloved fist.

All three on the podium, including Norman, who had been a critic of Australia’s former White Australia Policy, wore Olympic Project for Human Rights badges.

As they left the podium they were booed by the crowd. Smith later said, "If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight."

The gesture raised boos from many of the spectators. The United States Olympic Committee was leaned upon by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – whose American President, Avery Brundage, later referred to the incident as "the nasty demonstration against the American flag by negroes" - to suspend the athletes and send them home.

Australia's Peter Norman, left, stands with US sprinters Tommie Smith, centre, and John Carlos during their civil rights protest following the 200m final at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics ©Getty Images
Australia's Peter Norman, left, stands with US sprinters Tommie Smith, centre, and John Carlos during their civil rights protest following the 200m final at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics ©Getty Images

US athletes were warned in Mexico: "A repetition of such incidents...would warrant the imposition of the severest penalties at the disposal of the US Olympic Committee."

But subsequent protests of varying degrees took place.

After Lee Evans had led home a US clean sweep in the 400m, all three winners wore black berets to their medal ceremony. Bob Beamon, who broke the world record in the long jump, wore black socks pulled up high at his ceremony, while fellow US bronze medallist Ralph Boston went barefoot, commenting: "They’re going to have to send me home too." He was not sent home.

As a postscript, the US women’s 4x100m relay team publicly dedicated their own gold medals to Carlos and Smith.

Individual gold medallist Wyomia Tyus wore black running shorts in that relay final, where she ran the anchor leg as the US won in a world record of 42.88sec.

When the team were asked afterwards by the press what they thought about the Smith and Carlos protest, Tyus replied: "What is there to think? They made a statement.

"We all know that we’re fighting for human rights. That’s what they stood for on the victory stand - human rights for everyone, everywhere. And to support that and to support them, I’m dedicating my medal to them. I believe in what they did."

In the 1999 HBO documentary Fists of Freedom: The Story of the '68 Summer Games. Smith reflected:

"We were not Antichrists. We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country.

"I don't like the idea of people looking at it as negative. There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag – not symbolizing a hatred for it."

In the wake of their protest, both Smith and Carlos received death threats, and the latter’s home was attacked.

Australian Olympic Committee President John Coates presented Peter Norman's family with an Order of Merit last year to acknowledge his support for the civil rights protest at Mexico City 1968 ©Getty Images
Australian Olympic Committee President John Coates presented Peter Norman's family with an Order of Merit last year to acknowledge his support for the civil rights protest at Mexico City 1968 ©Getty Images

Although no formal action was taken against Norman, whose Oceania record of 20.06 set that night in Mexico still stands, his actions were resented by many in his home sporting establishment.

Norman recalled how, in the immediate aftermath of the protest, he was protected by his team manager, Julius Patching. "With a smile, [he] told me to consider myself severely reprimanded," he said. "Then he asked me how many tickets I wanted for the hockey."

Patching, however, had work to do to protect his athlete from conservative politicians back home in Australia who were calling for his blood.

After running the Olympic qualifying time in 1972 and finishing third in the trials, despite suffering from a knee injury, Norman did not go to Munich. No male sprinters were selected by Australia. He retired soon afterwards.

Norman was not included in the official celebrations when Sydney staged the 2000 Olympics. He died of a heart attack on October 6 in 2006.

The Australian Olympic Committee did not apply any official sanction to Norman for his Mexico City 1968 actions, and the body has strongly denied that he was not picked for Munich 1972 because of what had happened four years earlier.

Regarding Sydney, the AOC commented in 2015 that it "was not in a financial position to invite all Olympians to Sydney 2000. They were given special assistance to purchase tickets but it would have cost the AOC hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring Olympians from around the country to Sydney for the Games.

"The suggestion he was shunned is totally incorrect. He was treated like any other Australian Olympian."

Whether that was true in Norman’s life is debateable. Carlos once commented: "If we [Carlos and Smith] were getting beat up, Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone."

It certainly wasn’t true after Norman died. In 2012 the Australian Parliament debated a motion to provide him with a posthumous apology "for the treatment he received upon his return to Australia, and the failure to fully recognise his inspirational role before his untimely death in 2006".

In June last year the AOC presented Norman's family with an Order of Merit - its highest award - to acknowledge his support for the civil rights protest.

Then came the news of the statue that would be erected at the Lakeside Stadium in Melbourne.

Former Olympian and Labour senator Nova Peris, who was among those who campaigned for formal home recognition of Norman’s actions, has described the erection of the statue as "long overdue".

Peris, who became the first Aboriginal Australian to win an Olympic gold as a member of the women’s hockey team at Atlanta 1996 told sbs.com.au: "One thing that comes to my mind is long overdue... there's been two or three statues of Peter Norman in America and we finally got ours.

"I would've liked to have seen Peter along with Tommie and Johnnie as well, but maybe that's something we can look to in the future."

Peris' daughter Destiny, a teenage athlete, added: "Growing up around the track people said stuff about Peter Norman holding the record for the 200 metres, like he's held it since then.

"But no one said a lot about what he did on the podium.

"Australia kind of pushed that aside, didn't want to acknowledge what he did for a long time."

Peris added that her fight for Norman's recognition was inspired by his championing of Indigenous rights in Australia upon his return from the Mexic City 1968. 

"He was outspoken about the white Australia policy and the removal of Aboriginal children, so he had a lot of empathy, a lot of understanding of human equality," she said.

"I guess what Peter saw was how sports could bring people together and how a black man or a black woman when they ran it was almost freedom because they were sort of treated as equals."

The statue, created by sculptor Louis Laumen, stands in Albert Park outside Lakeside Stadium in Melbourne, Norman's home city, after being unveiled on October 9, the date of his funeral in 2006, which was subsequently established as Peter Norman Day by USA Track & Field.

Among those who attended the unveiling ceremony were Norman's coach Neville Sillitoe, now 94, his mother Thelma and daughter Janita.

"It's a good representation - he's standing tall and proud as he did on the dais," the latter told the Australian Associated Press.

"He was never one to seek recognition or to push his own agenda or story but I think he would have been absolutely delighted.

"It would have been wonderful to happen when Peter was still with us but it wasn't to be.

"It's really only been in the last few years since his death that Australia has sat up and taken notice and perhaps with the fact that he did pass, it was a bit of a wake-up call."

Smith and Carlos were pall-bearers for Norman in 2006 are are still in contact with his family.

"They will know all about what's going on and I'm sure that they will be really happy with what we see," Janita said.

Shortly after acting as pall bearer, Carlos recounted the conversation the three men had had before going out for the medal ceremony.

He said he and Smith had asked Norman if he believed in human rights, and he had said he did. He said they asked him if he believed in God and Norman, who came from a Salvation Army background, had said he believed strongly in God.

"We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat," Carlos recalled. "Peter said, 'I'll stand with you'.”

Carlos added that he had expected to see fear in Norman's eyes, but didn’t. "I saw love," he said.