It’s the greatest photograph in sports, perhaps one of the 20th century’s most indelible images: two African-American sprinters atop a victory dais, heads bowed, black gloves borne aloft, fists clenched in an act of astonishing—truly, according-to-Hoyle astonishing—protest. When Tommie Smith and John Carlos stepped up at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games to receive their gold and bronze 200m medals respectively, the stadium was struck silent. The Star Spangled Banner petered out after a scant four bars. As the victors exited, a smattering of boos rippled through Estadio Olímpico.
What of the third person in that picture? A slight, meek-looking Caucasian man stands to the left, facing away from the two Americans, looking awkwardly out of place. It appears that two of him could fit inside Smith, who towers over him like a hulking Adonis. He resembles the waterboy more than one of the Games’ great sprinters. His name is Peter Norman, the Australian silver medallist, and his unlikely involvement in this standstill historical moment motivates the documentary Salute.
I first discovered this picture almost a decade ago in a 50th-anniversary edition of the once-defunct, now-resurrected Life magazine. I don’t think my teenage self even registered another presence alongside Smith and Carlos, let alone his part in the moment. Next to the Americans, his protest is almost unnoticeable. Look a little closer, and you’ll see a small white disc adorning Norman’s left lapel—an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge—a minute gesture, and one so freighted with meaning because it was forbidden by the IOC. The late sprinter’s nephew, Matt Norman, uses this protest as a fulcrum to celebrate his uncle’s life, chronicling how each sprinter arrived at that moment, and then dealt with the volatile aftermath.
Norman’s film is slotted somewhere between DIY homage and ramshackle PBS feature, and there’s a lot of well-intentioned chaff, as Norman tallies race times on the road to the finals and essays miniature human interest biographies of each sprinter. Then he really finds stride as he contextualizes the protest. A world out of joint, a cauldron for discontent: the Martin Luther King riots, Russia invading Czechoslovakia, China’s cultural revolution, South African apartheid, the white Australia policy, and the pre-Olympic student protest turned massacre in Mexico City. The political activism found in the ’68 U.S. Track and Field team, spearheaded by another sprinter, Lee Evans, is placed in that continuum. The salute, recognizable as that of the Black Panther movement, finds resonance with so much more.
Matt Norman doesn’t seem to have the stuff to be an above-the-title documentarian. His rather pedestrian qualities do suit an effort whose most compelling passages reveal, to borrow a term from Hannah Arendt, the banality of heroism: Norman plucking that badge at the last minute from the chest of an American rower; John Carlos forgetting his black gloves at home, meaning that he and Smith had to share a single pair. John Carlos believes God ordained those three to be in that situation. Not so much destiny, I would say. More having an awareness of the moment, and seizing it.
As befits a eulogy, Norman the younger’ is always dragging his uncle to the fore, and in their interviews, Smith and Carlos are happy to oblige. Genuine affection flows between them during their several interviews, as does an understanding that can only be borne out of mutual hardship. Amidst the politically charged lead-up to the Games, half-whispered rumors of an American protest had the team plagued by threats of career suicide, not to mention possible snipers in the stands ready to quell any protests, and had them at the centre of a debate whether or not the Olympics should truck with politics. Beset by these worries, Smith and Carlos became bravery’s avatars, and Peter Norman, their fellow traveller, was no less iron-willed for his part. Barred from the American Olympic team days after their display, Smith and Carlos were blackballed and found it difficult to secure employment stateside. Norman, despite being his country’s best sprinter, was subjected to similar, though subtler, ostracism. He never competed for Australia in the Olympics again. Through it all, Norman the elder is humorous and self-effacing in conversation, believing that he was “merely a rock cast into the deep, still waters,” depicted by his nephew with a modesty that makes Salute excel both as a personal document, and as a treatment of history viewed first hand.—JAMES CRAWFORD