In 1968, I was ten. My babysitting aunt had found other distractions and spent less money on records. As a result, my only memory of music released that year was a Friday afternoon at her house, my nan’s, and reeling from the shock of turning Hey Jude over to its B side. I remember the singles of 1966 much clearer.
However, I was sports mad, a seasoned rugby and football fan, thanks to my grandfather. My most abiding memory of 1968 is the Mexico Olympics, held in October. The high altitude and the all weather track helped the ‘power’ sports. I was transfixed as Bob Beaman floated through the year shattering the long jump world record and amazed by Dick Fosbury throwing himself backwards to win the high jump. Even today, I still can’t believe how David Hemery managed to keep going so fast on that final straight in the 400m hurdles.
I’ve always loved the sprints. The 200m is an incredible race. I’m still enthralled by the way they stream round the bend and unravel at the straight. American Tommie Smith was meant to be nursing an injury but he came off the bend and surged past his great friend and biggest foe, John Carlos, smashing the world record. Carlos was so deflated, Australian Peter Norman pipped him to silver in a national record that still stand today, fifty years later.
However, it was the medal ceremony that rocked my world. I lived in a part of the world 99.9% white. The first black person I saw in the flesh was Frank Wilson, a dazzling centre for St. Helens, who joined the club, coincidentally in 1968. I regarded them as exotic creatures who were fabulous singers, dancers, athletes and exquisitely cool. I wished I was just like them. I was completely ignorant of the grim reality of life that they faced. Here were two incredible American athletes raising a black fisted salute, each with a glove on different hands, head bowed and with no shoes, as their national anthem rang around the stadium and the world. It was stunning. Their protest led me to learn about Robert Kennedy, Vietnam, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parkes and more.
In 1968, a year of great unrest, there was a price to pay. The head of the IOC, Avery Brundage, an American who had fought against a boycott of Hitler’s 1936 Olympics, drummed them out of Mexico and banned them from competing in the Olympics for life. The two American athletes faced economic hardship and death threats back home. They both tried American Football without any real success. Smith went on to coach and Carlos to counselling.
As Smith and Carlos readily acknowledge, Norman, was, in a way worse off. They told him before the ceremony what was planned. “Do you believe in God and human rights?” they asked. He certainly did. To their surprise, he gave them his full support. Norman wore a black scarf and an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge. He was the one who suggested they each wore a single glove after Carlos had left his pair in the village. Back home, he was ostracised by the Australian media and, despite running excellent times, didn’t represent his country at the Olympics again. His sanctions were unofficial and he had no community to support him. In 1985, he contracted gangrene after a charity run and depression, heavy drinking and dependence on painkillers ensued. He died of a heart attack, aged 64. Smith and Carlos were pall bearers and gave eulogies at his funeral. In 2012, the Australian Parliament issued a posthumous apology.
I’m never going to be able to sing, dance or run like a black man but I hope I will always step forward and provide my unflinching support as Peter Norman did.