PETER GEORGE NORMAN (15 Jun 1942 – 3 Oct 2006)
Peter Norman came from Melbourne and originally began running with the Collingwood Athletic Club as a junior, before transferring to East Melbourne Harriers where he was coached throughout his career by Neville Sillitoe. Peter became a high school physical education teacher as well as a Salvation Army Officer. Peter also loved football and played and coached for West Brunswick after his athletic career.
In 1962 he ran in the selection trials for the Perth Commonwealth Games and won a place in the team in the 220yds. In Perth he finished third in his quarter final heat in 22.06 after having run 21.57 in a first round heat.
Injuries denied him a chance to make the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games and he had a moderate 1965 yielding just a fourth in the Nationals in 22.1, run on grass in North Hobart. In 1966 athletics went metric and Peter celebrated the change-over by winning his first national title in Perth at 200 metres in 20.9, gaining selection for the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica.
The 1966 Games were still held over the imperial distances and many of the sprints were hampered by headwinds. Peter had been added to also compete in the 100 yards but was eliminated in the quarter finals finishing sixth in 10.27, run into a big 5 metres headwind. In the 220 yards he finished sixth in the semi final in 21.2, but there was better news in the 4x110yds relay, which he anchored to a bronze medal in 40.0.
However Peter’s work was not done as he was asked to run the opening leg of the 4x440yds relay final replacing Gary Eddy who was unable to run. The team finished fifth.
In 1967 Peter retained his national 200m title in 21.3 and the following year, he won it for a third time in 20.5 in Sydney edging out club team mate Greg Lewis who also ran 20.5. Both were selected for the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games.
The altitude in Mexico was very advantageous to sprinters and Peter in superb form took full advantage of it. He ran 20.23 in his opening round heat and followed it up with a 20.44 and 20.22 in his quarter and semi finals to make him a medal contender in the final. Not a good starter, he was only sixth coming off the bend but was still within striking distance of the leaders. With an amazing surge he raced through to split the two highly fancied Americans, Tommie Smith and John Carlos to win silver in 20.06 behind Smith’s world record of 19.83. His time still stands as the Australian national record.
During the Victory Ceremony both Tommie Smith and John Carlos made their now famous black power salute on the victory dais protesting the manner in which black people were treated in the USA. Peter fully aware of what was happening wore their protest badge in support. The photo of that Victory Ceremony is one of the world’s iconic sporting moments.
In 1969 there was another national 200m title in Melbourne, this time in in 21.3 and then he almost snatched the 100m title from Greg Lewis, who won in 10.6, the same time as Peter. He represented the British Commonwealth against the USA in Los Angeles and finished third in the 200m in 20.9. In September Peter represented Australia in the first Pacific Conference Games in Tokyo, Japan, winning the 200m in 21.0 and anchored the relay team to gold in 40.8.
He continued his 200m domination in Australia winning his fifth national title in 1970 in 21.0 in Adelaide which also gained him selection for a third Commonwealth Games. Peter finished fifth in the 200m.in Edinburgh in 20.86. He never got to anchor the relay team as the baton was dropped in the early part of the race and the team did not finish.
Injuries forced Peter to miss the early part of 1971 but in October, he was back to top form running 10.2 and 20.5 and looking forward to making the 1972 Olympic Team. However at the Nationals in Perth, which served as the selection trials, strong headwinds made times slow and he could only manage third in the 200m in 21.6 and he was not chosen for Munich.
He decided to retire from athletics after his disappointing omission. Peter loved his athletics and would compete in a variety of events at inter-club doing high jumps, javelins and whatever his club needed. His constant cheeky grin made him a loveable character. He became a sought after guest speaker and was also part of the Channel 9 commentary team at the 1990 Commonwealth Games.
Sadly Peter suffered a fatal heart attack in 2006. At his memorial in Williamstown Town Hall wonderful eulogies were given by Smith and Carlos, who were pall bearers at his funeral along with Mexico team manager and coach, Ray Weinberg.
Peter Norman’s career will be remembered not only for his achievements on the track but for his small part in one of the most poignant moments in world sport.
Paul Jenes OAM
Acknowledgements: Ron Clarke (ed) -Athletics the Australian Way; Harry Gordon - Australia and the Olympic Games; Paul Jenes - Fields of Green, Lanes of Gold; David Wallechinsky - The Complete Book of the Olympics; The Oxford Companion to Australian Sport