1968 Olympic Games and Social Injustice

When I am not writing on this blog, I am often researching for this blog. Today, I slipped upon a story that I didn’t even know about and it really tore my heart out.

I was looking for a certain player and I stumbled upon a man by the name of John Carlos in the 1970 NFL Draft. The name sounded vaguely familiar, like a name I had heard years ago. A quick glance at Wikipedia reminded me of the identity of John Carlos and how he had won the bronze medal in the 200 meters in the 1968 Olympics.

The Philadelphia Eagles had selected John Carlos of San Jose State in the 15th round of the 1970 Draft hoping for the same type of success that the Dallas Cowboys had enjoyed with Bullet Bob Hayes a few years earlier. Like Hayes, John Carlos was an American sprinter who had won medals at the Olympics.

Television commentators at football games will often say a player has world class speed and they are usually mistaken. But, John Carlos and Bob Hayes truly did have world class speed.

Bob Hayes was the gold medal winner in the 100 meters at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. The

Dallas Cowboys, in a moment of brilliance, drafted Hayes in the 7th round of the 1964 Draft and he was so successful for them that he is currently in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There were not a lot of defensive backs during the 1960s that could cover Bob Hayes deep, and apparently, the Eagles were looking for the same kind of weapon with John Carlos.

John Carlos was one of the two American sprinters that finished 1st and 3rd in the Mexico City Olympics of 1968. Tommie Smith had won the race and Carlos finished in third place. Then, in an act that shocked the world, the two of them held their fist in the air covered by a black glove to bring notice to how black people were being treated in the United States of America. They did this on the medal stand while the National Anthem was being played.

Many people thought they were saying ‘black power’ by raising their gloved fists in the air, but they were, in reality, calling to attention the ugliness of racism.

They met instant ridicule and were shunned by the American Olympic Committee and anyone else involved with the Olympic team.

It was much like the Colin Kaepernick situation today. The biggest difference was that nobody else joined in with them. White America was offended by the ‘black power’ demonstration on the medal stand

The thing that I learned today that shocked me was not so much about John Carlos, although he was heavily involved. The name John Carlos slipped my mind earlier in the day, but I do clearly remember Carlos and Tommie Smith with fist raised high on the medal stand. John Carlos had finished third in that blazing fast race on that day so many years ago. Fellow black American Tommie Smith won the race and became the first man ever to break the 20 second barrier in the 200 meters. He ran a smoking fast 19.83, while Carlos finished in third place with an outstanding time of 20.10. In second place was an Australian named Peter Norman who ran an extremely fast 20.06. That time broke the Australian record and it’s still the record to this day. In 50 years, no Australian has ever outrun Peter Norman’s time in the 200 meters.

Looking at the photo of the two black Americans holding their fists in the air, one with his right fist and the other with his left, it’s really hard to notice the white man standing at attention in the 2nd

place position on the podium. He is just humbly standing there in the normal position with nothing to call attention to him.

The white Peter Norman is the real story for this blog post, or the news flash for me.

Just looking at the photo, one would think that the two Americans would be opposed to the Australian. Nothing could be further from the case, as they were all joined together in harmony. According to the stories out there, it was Peter Norman’s idea for the two men to wear the glove which is why they had them on opposite hands. He also supposedly furnished the gloves. All three of the guys on the medal stand had the same arm bands on, which were about human rights.

John Carlos and Tommie Smith, I had heard about my entire life. Maybe I had recently forgotten, but I had heard the stories of how they stood for human rights. I knew they had taken a lot of heat for what they had done in Mexico City and most people were against them.

What I had never heard before was Peter Norman’s story. At some point later, John Carlos had said “If he and Tommie Smith were getting beat up, Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.”

It may not seem like much in today’s society, but back then, Australia had their own Apartheid going much like South Africa. Aborigine’s were treated with no respect and as second class citizen’s. Peter Norman stood for them, and other races, and he was almost destroyed because of it.

Peter Norman could not find work. He was financially in ruins, his family suffered and so did his first marriage. Instead of coming home a hero, he was shunned by society for standing up for what he though was right.

In 1972, Norman ran Olympic qualifying times in both the 100 and the 200 meters, only to be rejected for the Australian Olympic team. Not only did he run qualifying times, but he did it over and over again. He had, in effect, become something of an Aborigine to the people of Australia, an

outcast. He was now someone to be spit on and held with contempt.

Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman, although as different as any people can be, remained close friends. All they had in common was being very fast and the need to see all humankind to be treated equally.

Journalist Martin Flanagan covered the event and said that Carlos talked to Norman expecting to see fear in his eyes, but what he saw was love. Words are hard to come up with when writing about these men, John Carlos spoke to a white man and expected to get the same thing out of him that he got in most white men’s reaction to him in his own country. Peter Norman showed him the true meaning of what Jesus should have taught all of us so many years ago. John Carlos saw in Peter Norman what Jesus Christ had expected to be in all of us. It’s the love of our fellow man no matter what the color of their skin.

Norman died in 2006 of a heart attack in Melbourne at the age of 64. Both John Carlos and Tommie Smith spoke at his funeral and they were pallbearers.

As for John Carlos and football, a knee injury supposedly kept him from making the Philadelphia Eagles roster. He tried the Canadian Football League, but was injured there as well.