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Danehy

Tom gets to the heart of who the real heroes are, and it’s not politicians

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There are times when I feel I will be emotionally overwhelmed by the pettiness, hypocrisy, and duplicitousness of people in power and those who want to be in power. One day it's some crackpot woman in the Arizona legislature who wants to make church attendance mandatory and the next day it's the Presidential candidate who uses his position as Chair of the Senate Sub-Committee on Space and Science to make wildly un-scientific claims.

The other day I was having trouble determining just which lowbrow societal remora about whom to write when I came across a documentary that I hadn't seen in years. It's called "Salute" and I recommend it highly. It can be an inspiration for all except those sad few whose souls have been eaten away from the inside by hatred and small-mindedness.

Nineteen Sixty-Eight was a grand and horrible year for the United States. It began with the stunning Tet Offensive in Vietnam. That led to the announcement that President Lyndon Johnson would not run for re-election, which, in turn, opened the floodgates for one of the ugliest and most divisive presidential races in American history. Then, in quick succession, came the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.

That summer, several American cities went up in flames and Chicago, the site of the Democratic National Convention, was the scene of incredibly violent and bloody clashes between political protesters and police. By the end of the summer, it felt like America had been dragged through 10 awful years.

As summer gave way to autumn, there appeared on the horizon a brief respite form all the madness. The 1968 Summer Olympic Games were to be held in Mexico City in October to avoid the blazing summer heat.

Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith (who would both wear black socks throughout the competition to protest the treatment of black athletes in America) were the top 200-meter sprinters in the world, but in the early rounds of that event, their space was invaded by a happy-go-lucky, unassuming runner from Australia by the name of Peter Norman. In one of the early elimination heats, Norman broke the world record and held it for a few minutes before Carlos broke it in another heat.

In the finals, Norman was given the awful Lane 6 assignment, while Smith and Carlos got inside lanes. Carlos was favored, but Smith got off to a blazing start and blew by Carlos in the straightaway. As Carlos looked to his left to see Smith, Norman passed Carlos on the right to grab second place. Norman's time on 20.06, set nearly a half-century ago, is still the Australian record.

In the locker room, awaiting the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos told Norman of their planned protest on the medal stand, the now-iconic pose with the raised gloved fists. Norman, who was familiar with what was going on in America at the time, said he was cool with it. (As a matter of fact, Carlos had forgotten his gloves in the Olympic Village and it was Norman who suggested that each wear one glove, which is why Smith raised his right fist, while Carlos raised his left.)

Some Olympians were wearing badges that read "Olympic Project for Human Rights," a relatively tame gesture that nevertheless raised the ire of Olympic officials and infuriated the blatantly racist and anti-Semitic head of the International Olympic Committee, the American-born Avery Brundage. On the way to the medal stand, Norman asked American rower Paul Hoffman if he could borrow his badge. As Smith and Carlos raised their fists, Norman stood in solidarity with them, badge on his chest and head held high.

An apoplectic Brundage ordered that Smith and Carlos be sent home immediately. When they arrived, they were not treated kindly, even by many in the black community. They lost out on untold amounts of money that would have come their way through endorsements and Smith was even unceremoniously fired from his job at a car wash. If anything, it was even uglier for Norman, who was castigated by his government and blasted in the conservative Australian media. Despite still being one of the fastest humans on Earth in 1972, Australia chose to send no team to the Munich Games rather than one that consisted solely of Peter Norman.

When the Olympics were held in Sydney in 2000, he wasn't invited to participate. (Amazingly, his 20.06 time from 1968 would have won the event in 2000.) American Michael Johnson, the top sprinter in the world in 2000, sought Norman out and told Norman that he was one of his heroes.

Smith, Carlos and Norman remained friends over the decades. Norman was at San Jose State when the statue of the two on the Olympic medal stand was unveiled. The spot that had been occupied by Norman is left open so that people can stand there and participate in the silent, but powerful, protest. Peter Norman died in October of 2006. John Carlos and Tommie Smith flew to Australia to serve as pallbearers for their fallen friend.

I go to church on Easter Sunday, not because some unhinged politician says that I must, but simply because that's what I choose to do. And while I'm there, I'll thank God that there are people in the world like Peter Norman.

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