Chances are that you don’t remember the 1986 Summer Olympics. And even if you do, you probably don’t recall the name Peter Norman, the Australian sprinter who took home the silver but whose win was overshadowed by the now iconic image of him sharing the podium with two African American runners who gave the famous power salute to their brethren in an attempt to make a political statement about the emergence of social equality in many so-called “developed” nations.
Australia, you must recall, had only the year prior given native Aboriginals the right to vote. Remember the Baz Luhrmann epic Australia which told the story of “The Lost Generation” of children of mixed white and Aboriginal ancestry who were forcibly taken from their Aboriginal homes and raised to become part of what was basically a servant class to full white Australia? This is the backdrop against which the story of Peter Norman is told in the vivid new documentary from his nephew Matt. It tells the powerful tale of of the lone white man on the podium who wasn’t giving the power salute along with his other fellow medal winners. Was it a submission to racist policies of the past? Was he just being an apolitical athlete? Is it even fair for us to ask these questions of Norman?
The movie at time tend toward repetitiveness, but that does not take away from its essential message of a man being torn between doing what is “right” (at least in hindsight) and attending the Olympics as a representative of his nation. The interviews tend to say the same thing about the man, but they do paint a portrait that is worth looking at, and even transfixes you with the way politics and sports intertwine.
With the Olympics coming upon us in less than a few weeks, it will be interesting to see what stances are raised as the world takes note of a collapsing Europe, a new governing body in Egypt, and of course the massacres of Syria. Indeed, the only constant that the world guarantees is that change is rarely quick and never pretty. Not even for the champions among us.