“I believe that every man is born equal and should be treated that way” – 1968 Olympic Games Silver Medalist, Peter Norman
March 10th, 2015: We as a society have witnessed increasing turbulence, social volatility and political upheaval through the ravages of civil unrest and contentious wars. No, I’m not talking about recent Republican or Democratic presidencies although Bush and Obama do come to mind. No I’m talking about that landmark decade of cultural protests that birthed a revolutionary movement called the Sixties. And within that lawless decade the year that bore the brunt of this carnage was 1968. The North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated and the escalating Civil Rights Movement together with the ongoing student protests on American campuses teetered way past there tip points. While the tentacles of geo-politic stoked the embers of mini eruptions around the world, the wonders of TV became the conduit beaming incendiary images of civil unrest into households testing the situational awareness in us all. And unbeknownst to her, Mexican athlete Enriqueta Basilio Sotelo’s lighting of the Olympic Games cauldron on October 12th, 1968 re-ignited a furor decades in the making.
Compelling images of defiance have always elicited a rallying call to the masses. From the Kent State shootings to the Stonewall Riots; from Rosa Parks on the Montgomery bus to Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation, these iconic images are a testament to what courageous people in their darkest hour can and will do when faced with an injustice that seems insurmountable. In the world of sports no event comes closer to a global spectacle than the Olympic Games and no image from those games is more resolute in its defiance than the 1968 SILENT PROTEST by Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman.
“We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat,” – John Carlos.
Director, Matt Norman gives a dense distillation of visual history on the life of Australian Olympic sprinter Peter Norman in a manner never seen before. This unabashed, outspoken humanitarian is examined with alarming clarity through the suffocating veil of the Civil Rights Movement and the inequities that continued unabated at the highest levels of sport. In the afterglow of the 68 Olympic Games, Peter Norman should have been fêted at the highest order as a national hero for his sprinting prowess in Mexico City. Instead, the Australian media and its Olympic federation labeled him a pariah and colluded to insure that he would pay a heavy price for supporting the Americans and standing up for his beliefs. Beliefs that are now chronicled in “SALUTE” the critically acclaimed documentary of the story behind a remarkable athlete, activist and one of the most defining images of the American Civil Rights Movement.
SALUTE’s ability to steps out of the shadows, onto the track and into the blocks with a highly charged narrative predicated on politics, sports and the civil unrest is clear from its opening salvo. Filmmaker Norman spends the better part of the opening recounting Sixties strife and the hollowing out of America while seamlessly showing the mirroring effects of similar acts of violence and resistance halfway around the world in Australia. But, in order to truly understand the roots of Peter Norman’s activism, Matt Norman doubles down on his homelands civil unrest through archival film footage accounts of Australia’s Stolen Children and the rampant disenfranchisement and racism suffered by Aboriginals. These depictions were an unpalatable reminder of intolerance and injustice coursing through everyday life down under. From an early age being politically aware on the Civil Rights Movement and the Australian Indigenous Movement were part of Peter’s core beliefs. Through stills and interviews we are also given a strong sense of his working class family upbringing which included a liberal helping of religious scripture espousing the mantra that all people are equal. Unable to afford the kit for Australian Rule Football, Peter’s father borrowed a pair of second-hand spikes and it wasn’t until a relay snafu in which he filled in for a no-show in the local club championship that his natural talent for sprinting was realized. Matt Norman effortlessly toggles between the social and political ideologies confronting the African American community and Peter’s anti-racism stance both at home and abroad.
The symbolic image of two shoeless black athletes unwavering in their commitment, standing affirmed in black socks with heads bowed and a single black-gloved fist raised in the “black power” salute was just the start. In the thin air and hushed silence of the Estadio Olímpico Universitario their defiance personified the struggles African America were facing back home. But what few people if any were aware of was the depth of conviction for human rights that coursed through the Australian Silver Medalist. Seizing the moment allowed this conscientious objector a platform to not only divulge the injustices he was witnessing at the Olympic Games but lifted his voice in rebuke of the racial disparity established through the arcane “White Australia Policy” bubbling up back home. The mere act of affixing the Olympic Project for Human Rights button (an organization set up the previous year opposing all racism in sport) united all three men in the struggle forever. As a quiet gesture of solidarity, Peter showed us all that the action of one man can also make a difference. And even before they took the podium the smell of fear was in the air for any athlete who dared to use their medal ceremonies as a platform for protest. And even the fear-mongering diatribes handed down before the Olympics to Black athletes by Avery Brundage, Chairman of the American Olympic Committee could not quell the coming storms that were brewing on the Olympic horizon. The respective causes so near and dear to Smith, Carlos and Norman would put them in the cross-hairs of some very powerful organizations and forever change their lives.
“If a white Australian is going to ask me for an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, then by God he would have one” – US Rower, Paul Hoffman.
Sport documentaries always seem to have a unique perspective on the interplay between athletes and the athletic mindset in the heat of competition and SALUTE mines this sub narrative to perfection. Numbers speak volumes in the sprint community and Peter Norman’s 20.23 time in the first round of the 200 meter heats from the outside lane opened a few eyes, American eyes to be exact. Eyes that were expected to sweep the medals. When he lowered that time in the semi-finals people started asking, who the hell is Peter Norman? Matt Norman meticulously plays up the light-hearted psychological warfare that was now brewing on the track trenches between Norman and the Americans along with a free spirited soundtrack that hits the ground running. What was most enduring on screen is how three men who were shunned by their respective Olympic Federations in 1968 have continued a friendship some 40 years later all the while remaining stalwart as ever on issues of racism and human rights.
VERDICT 4.5 / 5: For all its ceremonial splendour and athletic grandeur, political power plays have continued to infect the Olympic ideal both on the field and off. One would think we as a society would have learned something from the 1968 Olympic Games protest and its salient message on the equality of all men, but the violent kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes in Munich four years later shows we haven’t learned a damn thing. Similar to Kevin Macdonald’s documentary One Day in September about the darkest days of the1972 Munich Olympics and Black September, SALUTE effectively captures and comments on the troubling Sixties like a stage four cancer. Director Matt Norman’s PBS-styled deconstruction and investigative reporting on the story behind the image through the lens that was Peter Norman infused a perspective seldom seen before. We bear witness to all of Peter’s trials and tribulations as the harsh reality of how sports and politics converged to consume him. He may have been an anomaly in both in sprinting and activism but SALUTE will insure that although his potential on the track was never fully realized his true legacy can be witnessed by all. Athletics and activism have never been comfortable bedfellows and yet the urgency of the times could not allow for anything less.
FINAL THOUGHT: They arrived as competitors but they left as brothers.
Genre: Documentary, Sports
Country: Australia, USA
Director: Matt Norman
Writer: Matt Norman
Producers: Matt Norman, David Redman
Associate Producer: Rebecca Norman
Music: David Hirschfelder
Cinematography: Martin Smith
Narrator: Christopher Kirby
Production Company: Wingman Films
Premiere: Conscious Activism Documentary Series (University of Toronto)
Runtime: 92 Minutes