Don’t Shoot the Messenger*

The famous protest on the 1968 Olympic 200m medal podium. Illustration by Chris Grosz.
The famous protest on the 1968 Olympic 200m medal podium. Illustration by Chris Grosz.

10 February 2016

Greg Denieffe writes:

In 1968, the 21st Olympic Games were held in Mexico City and they are remembered as much for what happened outside the bear pits of competition as in them. Most people interested in sports history will be familiar with what Tommie Smithwinner of the 200 meters gold medal, correctly stated was a ‘human rights salute’ but is generally called a ‘Black Power’ salute.

Smith and his fellow American sprinter John Carlos (200 meters bronze medalist) used their medal ceremony as an opportunity to protest against racial inequality in the USA. They were booed off the medal podium; suspended from the USA team and vilified at home for their stand.

During the medal ceremony Smith and Carlos raised their black-gloved fists and bowed their heads during the American national anthem. They wore badges supporting a movement called the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), which had been set up the previous year advocating a boycott of the Mexico Games unless four conditions were met:

They wanted South Africa and Rhodesia uninvited from the Olympics;
they wanted Muhammad Ali’s world heavyweight boxing title to be restored;
they wanted Avery Brundage to step down as president of the IOC;
and they wanted more African-American assistant coaches hired.

Neither South Africa nor Rhodesia participated in Mexico and the proposed boycott did not materialise. Smith and Carlos went to the Games with a plan: should they get to the medal podium, they would not only wear their gloves but also go barefoot to protest poverty, wear beads to protest lynchings, and wear the badge of the OPHR.

Badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
Badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

The OPHR was supported by some white athletes, amongst them were the rowers of Harvard University, who had won selection to represent the USA in the eights event of the Olympic Regatta to be held on Lake Xochimilco, just south of Mexico City.

Harvard’s 1968 crew on the banks of the Charles River. Photo: The Boston Globe.
Harvard’s 1968 crew on the banks of the Charles River. Photo: The Boston Globe.

The following quotes are from The Sport of Rowing (2011) by Peter Mallory:

(Chapter 102 – Harvard Goes to the Olympics)

Peter quotes Roger Angell from his article 00:00.05 published in The New Yorker (10 August 1968):

Five of the Harvard crewmen [later] circulated a letter among other white athletes on the United States Olympic Team urging support of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a group of black athletes that may undertake a boycott or some other form of protest at the Games as a means of dramatizing racial inequalities.

This action was discussed by the Harvard crewmen before the Trials, and one of them told me that it was another reason that Harvard had to win (the Trials).

Mallory had this to say on the turmoil that engulfed America after a demonstration before the Games in Mexico City which saw armed troops gun down more than 300 students and which largely went unreported by the press, but was witnessed by many U.S. athletes:

Six of the Harvard crew had signed a letter supporting San Jose State University Professor Harry Edwards and his Olympic Project for Human Rights. Several had appeared with him at a press conference in Cambridge (Massachusetts) before the Games.

Andy Larkin, Harvard/USA six-seat, in a letter to Mallory in 2007: “We believed that we should support the blacks, to give them voice to their issues.”

Steve Brooks, stroke of the USA eight (also in 2007): “I think it was the night before the heats that [coxswain Paul] Hoffman was pulled before the USOC Board and threatened with expulsion for agitating with the Project for Human Rights.”

Peter Norman later in life, with his 1968 silver medal.
Peter Norman later in life, with his 1968 silver medal.

The third man on the 200m medal podium was Australian Peter Norman, who also wore an OPHR badge in support of racial equality which he could readily identify with owing to the treatment at that time of the Indigenous Australian people (Aboriginal Australians). The badge that Peter wore was given to him by Paul Hoffman. Hoffman made the USA Olympic team again in 1972 and coxed the American eight to the silver medal. Norman did not make the Australian team in 1972 and controversy has surrounded his non-selection and his treatment by the Australian Olympic Committee ever since.

Sadly, Norman died in 2006, aged 64. In October 2012, the Australian Parliament officially apologised to him for the treatment he received on his return to Australia and for the wrong done to him by Australia in failing to send him to the 1972 Olympic Games. The Parliament recognised his extraordinary athletic achievement, his bravery in donning an OPHR badge in solidarity with Smith and Carlos and the role he played in furthering racial equality.

The Australian Olympic Committee disputed the claims made in the Australian Parliament apology and gave an explanation as to why Norman was not selected for Munich 1972.

Norman was a deeply religious man and like Smith and Carlos believed that it was fate that put the three of them in a position to make a dignified statement about racial inequality in both the USA and Australia. He had no regrets about wearing the OPHR badge and neither sought or wanted a public apology.

If, as Norman believed, it was fate that conspired to put him in a position to stand not just beside Smith and Carlos on the podium but with them on that day, then I’m proud that by another simple twist of fate that it was a rowing man that provided him with the opportunity to do so.

Salute is available on DVD (2012) or you can watch it online for $3.99
Salute is available on DVD (2012) or you can watch it online for $3.99

In 2008, Norman’s nephew Matt Norman directed and produced the documentary Salute. It tells the story behind what has become the image of the Games and features interviews with all the main characters involved, including Paul Hoffman.

The calm before the storm as Norman, Smith and Carlos make their way down to trackside to receive their medals. Photo: Salute the Movie on Facebook.
The calm before the storm as Norman, Smith and Carlos make their way down to trackside to receive their medals. Photo: Salute the Movie on Facebook.

The documentary reveals that just before the medal ceremony, John Carlos discovered that he had left his black gloves in the Olympic Village. It was Peter Norman who suggested that they wear a single glove each and that is why Tommie Smith raised his right arm and Carlos his left. As they walked out, Carlos was congratulated by Paul Hoffman who was wearing his OPHR badge. According to Carlos, he reached over and took the badge for Norman who had asked how he could lend his support. Hoffman’s recollection is somewhat different; on hearing that Norman wanted to wear the badge for the medal ceremony, he happily handed his over to Carlos. Whoever’s memory is most accurate, there is no doubt that it was Hoffman’s badge that Norman wore and in that moment his life was forever changed.

You can read more about Hoffman’s involvement in the OPHR in an article called Olympics ’68: The Politics of Hypocrisy on The Harvard Crimson website and watch an hour long video called 1968 Olympics: The Black Power Salute on YouTube in which there are several clips documenting the rowers support for the project.

This would be a perfect ending, but there is another side to the story. Robert Messenger, journalist, typewriter collector and blogger (one I follow for his entertaining articles and because he has the collecting bug) wrote an article, published on his blog oz.Typewriter on 7 November 2015, in support of the Australian Olympic Committee’s statement the previous day stating that it had not shunned Peter Norman or failed to pick him for the next Olympics in 1972 because of the incident in 1968. It was Messenger’s article, Is it Ever Right to Tell Big Fat Lies?: How Social Media can be so Malevolent, that reignited my interest in Smith, Carlos and Norman. I still admire all three but can’t help feeling that Norman is now just a pawn in a game.

* Don’t Shoot the Messenger – Don’t treat the bearer of bad news as if they were to blame for it, particularly if their name is Robert Messenger. More importantly, Tommie Smith and John Carlos both feared being shot whilst they were on the medal podium.

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