Saturday, May 12, 2012

Talking Australian: Peter Norman and Cathy Freeman : barefoot protest




The Mexico City Olympics were staged against a surreal and tumultuous 1968. Social change and general unrest at the continuation of the Vietnam War and race riots and student protests formed a tragic backdrop for the assassinations of Malcom X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. A planned boycott by black athletes failed but the atmosphere was charged with protest as the Games were televised and broadcast live to the US. The Black athletes were determined to show solidarity and wore no shoes around the Village and when Tommie Smith (Gold) and John Carlos (Bronze) took their place on the winner's podium with Australian, Peter Norman (silver) for the 200m.



Smith and Carlos, closed their eyes, bowed their heads, before raising a black-gloved fist during the playing of the 'Star-Spangled Banner.' The raised fist and glove referred to defiance in the weight of racial servitude and the shoeless stance was a symbol of humanity and statement of poverty. Smith wore a scarf around his neck as mark of 'Black Pride'. The dignified brave barefoot protest was met with outrage from officialdom and Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Olympics. Both athletes kept their socks on. To this day the simple action of two barefoot men has become an iconic milestone in the history of civil rights. Muhammad Ali described it as 'the single most courageous act of the century'.



After the final, Carlos and Smith told Norman what they were planning. It was Norman who suggested Smith and Carlos share the black gloves used in their salute, after Carlos left his pair in the Olympic Village.This is the reason for Smith raising his right fist, while Carlos raised his left. On the way out to the medal ceremony, Norman saw the Paul Hoffman (US Rowing Team) wear a Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) and asked him if he could borrow it. Norman wore the badge on the podium.



Despite the ensuing scandalous, aftermath, the three athletes remained good life long friends.



On September 25, 2000, Day ten of the XXVII Olympiad, the Australian athlete Cathy Freeman captured the hearts of the biggest crowd ever to attend an athletics event when, after winning gold in the 400m performed her lap of honour, barefoot. She carried with her both Aboriginal and Australian flags to thunderous applause. Cathy walked barefoot to the edge of the stands where she tossed the two-sided flag into the adoring crowd. Previously the Aboriginal athlete had been criticised by officials at 1994 Commonwealth Games, when she took her victory lap, carrying both the Aboriginal and Australian flags. The theme of the Sydney Olympics was Reconciliation and Cathy became an indelible Australian hero.