Mexico’s 1968 Summer Olympics are best remembered not for the tremendous physical displays, but rather for the now-iconic Black Power salute given by two black American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, on the winner’s podium. The star of this story, however, is the third man on the podium, Peter Norman, the white Australian who stood in support of their actions, donning an “Olympic Project for Human Rights” badge, as would make headlines worldwide.
In the late sixties, a time of great change and also of great peril, the fallout to these men and their stand naturally proved contentious. Director Matt Norman, Peter Norman’s nephew, manages to, through extensive archive footage and intimate interviews with the subjects, immerse us fully in the time and place of this delicate period of social unrest.
Norman gives us a well-rounded, three-act delivery of the events, beginning with what brought these men to the runner’s track in the first place. Though divided along racial lines, each of them saw running as a way to escape an impoverished life, even if there is no doubting Smith and Carlos’ considerably tougher paths to this point. While Norman had to deal with training against the thin air of Mexico, the American team were faced with Vietnam, the murders of Robert F Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the subsequent race riots. There’s also the disgusting irony that though these men compete for their country at their peak, they are still kicked out of restaurants and pubs for being black.
Thus, it follows that their athletic visibility can allow them to speak for their people. We get a glimpse at the inner machinations of the black community leading up to the games, as they prepare a boycott, much to the chagrin of the Olympic administration. Nevertheless, a more creative, philosophical approach wins out, that a successful display of athleticism will give way to any demonstration they should wish on the podium. This all built up to one of the most politically contentious Olympics of all time, with pre-game riots at the hands of uneasy students, while the military tried to hide this from the athletes.
The insight given into the meticulous Olympic preparation is intriguing to observe, and even surprisingly tense given the known outcome. Becoming aware of the small details – the misplaced gloves, the fleeting conversations – that caused the iconic moment to occur, is in its own way quite fascinating. Rumours of wire-tapped coaches and assassins prowling the grounds for any dissent only make the moment even more important, if also terrifying.
Given the time in which it took place, it is of little surprise that reaction to the stunt was mixed, with sporting enthusiasts taking it as an affront, devaluing the sporting achievements made. One even remarks, probably rightly, that the three would have been happier, healthier and wealthier had they not done it, but social change ostensibly must come at some cost to someone. More surprising was the press response, however, further perpetuating the racial abuse and painting Smith and Carlos as aggressive, young black thugs, which they of course were not.
Though their acts served a greater good, Norman rightly capitulates its consequences, with Smith, who held 11 world records at the time, falling destitute and having to wash cars for a living. Peter Norman, meanwhile, was deselected from the 1972 Munich Olympics for his part in the display, and had to return to Australia as something of a lone ranger to face the torrent of abuse.
Admittedly, Matt Norman’s narration might feel a tad on-the-nose and even superfluous, given how much the subjects have to say, especially considering that he doesn’t need to struggle to make heroes of his subjects. Indeed, Peter Norman is an especially funny, charming fellow, offsetting the more serious tone of his comrades. The director is, however, to be praised for giving the racial situation its fair due; one white former athlete notes how he himself was discriminated against by a group of black athletes.
The message here is an uplifting one, if prefaced heavily by the fact that we have a long way to go in the battle for equality in all its forms, but the nobility of these three athletes is something that more of us can aspire to, whether we’re fit to run or not. Peter Norman’s nephew might have quite predictably glossed over some of the more unfortunate aspects of his uncle’s post-Olympics life, but Salute largely serves as a comprehensive, well-structured deconstruction of an important socio-political moment.
Salute is on limited release from Friday.
This article was first posted on July 11, 2012