Thursday, 2 August 2012

"I'll stand with you"

Three Proud People- mural in Newtown

I didn't know about Peter Norman until Damien Hooper wore the Aboriginal flag on his t-shirt into the Olympic arena just before he kicked ass for Australia.  Incredulous that the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) had chosen to censure him citing IOC rule 50 and the sanctity of the Olympic spirit, my mind which works in strange and mysterious ways, flashed with one of the most memorable images of the twentieth century history- Tommie Smith and John Carlos silently raising their fists in protest against the inequality suffered by African-Americans in the 1968 Olympics.  I can't tell you when I first saw that image but I can say that I definitely I didn't pay any attention to whoever the skinny white guy was.
I didn't know that Peter Norman, an Australian who was "brought up in the Salvos", was, against all odds, the silver medalist in that race in 68. I didn't know that he and his family had championed Aboriginal rights in the lead-up to the 67 referendum. I didn't know that Tommie Smith and John Carlos had told him that they were planning to protest, nor that he had pinned the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge to his chest in solidarity and said, "I'll stand with you".
I didn't know that he had stood there in both the moment of shocked silence and then the storm that followed, while people hurled whatever was to hand as well as racial abuse- "Niggers need to go back to Africa!" and, "I can't believe this is how you niggers treat us after we let you run in our games." John Carlos recounted the experience saying he never saw the fear he expected to see in Peter Norman's eyes, instead,  "I saw love. Peter never flinched (on the dais). He never turned his eyes, he never turned his head."
Just taking that stand, just wearing that badge cost Peter Norman very dearly- Australia's Olympic authorities reprimanded him and the media ostracised him. On his return to Australia he was also banned for two years. Despite running qualifying times for the 100m five times and 200m 13 times during 1971/72, the Australian Olympic track team did not send him to the 1972 Summer Olympics (though he was ranked 5th in the world and despite the fact that they had noone else to send so that this was the first modern Olympics since 1896 where no Australian sprinters participated). Even 32 year later, despite the fact Peter Norman's record still stood for the 200 metres,  he was somehow "overlooked" and the only Australian Olympian medal winner to be excluded from making a VIP lap of honour at the Sydney Games in 2000.  But Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who he had stood with all those years ago, had not forgotten him. Neither had the American Athletes who welcomed him into their accomodation- "that year's 200m champion Michael Johnson hugged him, saying: "You are my hero."

I'm proud that our nation, that has so much to be sorry for and ashamed of, also produces people like Peter Norman.  I wish I could attribute the fact I didn't know about this great Australian to the fact I grew up in Samoa but as I read on I realised how little was known about him by many of my fellow Australians. Which brings me back to Damien Hooper, whose t-shirt triggered that image and taught me about Peter Norman, an Australian Olympian who made a silent stand for human rights for all humanity. 44 years on the AOC doesn't seem to have learnt anything from that stand.

I am really struggling to see how the AOC can say that the Aboriginal flag is a "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda" as set out in rule 50 of the Olympic Charter.  As an Australian, I find it incredibly offensive that the Aboriginal flag, proclaimed by the Australian Government as an official 'Flag of Australia' in 1995 (under s5 of the Flags Act 1953) is being labeled "racial propaganda". I also can't reconcile the AOC's position with the fact that at the Sydney Olympics the Aboriginal flag was flown, that the Sydney Games Organising Committee said  "The IOC has made it clear that they are relaxed about the Aboriginal flag and they understand its significance in Australia" and individual teams were able to decide whether athletes carried it. Who can forget Cathy Freeman's victory lap with the Aboriginal and Australian flags flowing behind her as the whole nation cheered on?

As a non-indigenous Australian, I'm part of a nation that recognises both the Aboriginal and the Australian National Flag and I'm proud to be associated with both.  And I'm cheering on an amazing athlete who said at the end of his match "I am an Aboriginal, representing my culture and all my people, and I am very proud".

Damien Hooper- I'll stand with you.


Sila Aiono said...

I couldn't help but get emotional over that article...seeing the discrimination and indecency that many indigenous people face in Australia, I felt moved by your description of these heroes peaceful protest. Love it:D

Teine Samoa said...

Thanks Sila. After I wrote this post, I was very happy to see that a number of mainstream media wrote similar stories about Peter Norman and this culminated in an apology by the Australian Parliament to Norman's family. Which is wonderful but I think a more fitting tribute would be the goverment requiring every sporting code including (or especially) Athletics Australia to have an anti-discrimination policy. I always appreciate feedback and it's good to hear that I was able to convey the emotion I felt.