PETER NORMAN, a wonderful man and a wonder of an athlete, reached the finish line today in Melbourne, Australia.
He will be remembered as the middleman, the little white guy who split two giants of American sprinting, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, in the 200m final at the Mexico Olympic Games in 1968.
Moreover, he will be honoured for taking a supportive although not overt position in the so-called Black-Power medal ceremony in which Smith and Carlos mounted the dias in black socks and, heads bowed, each raised a black gloved fist during the American anthem.
For this Smith and Carlos were thrown out of the athletes village and they became pariahs in American sporting life until at least the early 1980s, by which time the damage to their personal lives had become irreparable.
IN winning the silver medal, Norman clocked 20.06sec which remains the Aussie record. As he waited for the ceremony, an always thoughtful and switched-on Norman said he believed in the cause motivating the Movement For Human Rights Project.
They gave him a button to wear on his tracksuit jacket, which he did during the ceremony.
For many years he maintained contact with the men who shared the podium with him, more so with Smith however, for whom he had a high regard as a man.
I met Peter Norman in 1970. He became a friend. Consistent, good company on the rare occasions we managed to catch up, no airs and graces about him, no deceptions, always telling it as he saw it, always with good humor, always happy to have a beer and for him the glass was always half full.
I bumped into him at the Sydney Olympics. He showed me the dreadful scar left by a golden staph infection he contracted in hospital in Melbourne when he had Achilles tendon surgery. Half the soleus muscle was gone. All that was left was bone and tendon it seemed.
“It was a worry there for a while. I’m happy though. I’m still buying my shoes in pairs,” he laughed.
Several weeks ago out of the blue I telephoned him and he sounded frail. He had, he said, just had a heart attack, at 64.
“I had felt pretty ordinary, a little upset during the night and decided to take myself down to the hospital in the morning,” I remember him telling me.
“They ran some tests and the doctor said, you’ve had more than a ‘little upset’ you’ve had a major incident. We’re going to run some more tests on you in the next six weeks or so.”
Norman checked into hospital a couple of weeks later and an angiogram operation went badly wrong, as these things can, when the wire cut off the corner of an artery valve.
He never did have much luck in hospital.
I don’t know much about the heart structure, but that’s how I recall him explaining it to me when I rang him a couple of weeks later.
"I went in for the angiogram and after that, they put me back in and I ended up with triple bypass surgery,’’ he said. "But I’m getting better. I’ve slowed up a bit but I’ve already walked down to the supermarket to get the groceries.’’
I spoke to him again a couple of days later and he said his girls (daughter and wife) had rallied around him.
That was a few weeks ago. I’d been meaning to call again to catch up. I kept putting it off. I wish I hadn’t. I will miss him terribly.
Earlier this year he delivered to me an A4-size colour photograph of that iconic Mexico medal cermony protest. Smith, Carlos and Norman had all personally signed it.
I thought it was appropriate that Peter Norman, like Smith and Carlos, had signed it in gold ink.