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Monday, 20 August 2012
Page: 9318

Mr IRONS (Swan) (19:52): I rise to speak on the member for Fraser's motion, which includes recognising the extraordinary athletic achievements of the late Peter Norman, who won the silver medal in the 200-metre sprint event at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics in a time of 20.06 seconds, which still stands as the Australian record. I will include in my speech parts of an editorial obituary for Peter Norman, who passed away in 2006.

One of the most dramatic events in Olympic history came in 1968 when Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the US 200-metre medallists in Mexico City, stood on the victory dais barefoot, heads bowed and gloved fists raised during the playing of the Star-spangled banner. The third man in the photograph of this enduring symbol of protest against racial discrimination was Australia's Peter Norman, the silver medallist, who died suddenly at age 64 in 2006. He too became an icon of the American civil rights movement, if an unlikely one. In the photo he wears a badge identical to those worn by Smith and Carlos, identifying the Olympic Project for Human Rights. But Norman's participation was more than a token. While he did not raise a fist, he did lend a hand—that was how Smith explained it.

The member for Fraser's motion also acknowledges the bravery of Peter Norman in donning an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the podium in solidarity with the African-American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave the 'black power' salute. The Americans had discussed their plan with Norman, then a 26-year-old physical education teacher and Salvation Army officer, before the ceremony. When Carlos realised he had forgotten his black gloves, Norman suggested the two share Smith's pair. Norman borrowed a badge, which he then attached to his tracksuit over his heart. After the ceremony, Norman explained himself simply—'I believe that every man is born equal and should be treated that way.'

The motion also calls for the parliament to apologise to Peter Norman for the wrong done by Australia in failing to send him to the 1972 Munich Olympics, despite him repeatedly qualifying, and to belatedly recognise the powerful role that Peter Norman played in furthering racial equality.

After their protest, Smith and Carlos were expelled from the games. Their competitive careers were shattered and their marriages crumbled under the strain. The Australian team's chef de mission, Julius 'Judy' Patching, resisted calls from the country's conservative media for Norman to be punished, telling the athlete in private: 'They're screaming out for your blood, so consider yourself severely punished. By the way, have you got any tickets for the hockey today?' Patching seemed mystified as to what the fuss was about, though he did warn the athlete to be careful.

We have heard eloquent submissions and speeches by other members of this place, but I want to speak a bit more about Peter Norman the man. For me, as a 10-year-old in 1968 who thought I could I run a bit, he was an inspiration, and he is still an inspiration to many athletes in Australia. I spent four years running for the biggest athletic club in Australia—the Box Hill Athletic Club—after that and he was always spoken about highly at that club. He is still regarded as Australia's greatest ever sprinter.

It was with the Melbourne Harriers that Norman won his first major title: the Victorian junior 200-metre championship in 1960. He was the Australian champion for the five years from 1966 to 1970 and became known for his fast finishing. He took a relay bronze at the 1966 Commonwealth Games and 200-metre gold at the inaugural Pacific Games in Tokyo in 1969. In the Mexico City final Carlos, on the inside, eased up slightly when he saw his college teammate Smith winning easily. But Norman, in lane 6, had begun his trademark surge around the final bend and nipped Carlos by 0.04 of a second. Smith set a world record of 19.83 seconds; Norman was clocked at 20.06 seconds, which, as I said before, remains the Australian national record to this day.

Norman retired from international competition after finishing third at the Australian trials for the 1972 Munich games. He continued running until 1985, when an Achilles tendon injury became infected and gangrene set in. He avoided amputation only because one doctor argued with his colleagues that you cannot cut off the leg of an Olympic silver medallist. Norman was confined to a wheelchair while he relearned to walk. After Norman recovered he worked for the Melbourne department of sport and recreation. He was active in athletics administration, Olympic fundraising and the organisation of major events like the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Norman underwent triple bypass surgery a month before he died of an apparent heart attack while mowing his lawn. Peter Norman was and still is an Australian legend of athletics and sport.