- Monday, 16 July 2012
As we grapple with the ethical dilemma of sending our sports teams to countries with records of human rights abuse, and as we host our own Olympics, the powerful, moving documentary SALUTE, takes us back to the Mexican Olympics of 1968.
The film asks us to reflect not only on split-second athletic timings that make your career, but split-second moral decisions that destroy your life. As the world saw one of the exciting 200m sprinting races in history, so it turned a blind eye to the terrible injustice inflicted on the three medallists by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The Director/Writer/Producer of Salute, Matt Norman, is the nephew of the Peter Norman, the Australian Olympic sprinter who is the subject of this riveting documentary.
Peter Norman was a virtually unknown Australian sprinter when he flew into the record books at the 1968 Olympics held in Mexico City. His 20 second timing (which remains an Australian record) split the two black American favourites, Tommie Smith (who won Gold) and John Carlos (who won silver), and ousted a third, white American. But his minute of glory on the podium marked the end, not the beginning, of his promising career.
Matt Norman creates tension and builds the film’s emotional punch by gradually leading up to the moment of the eponymous salute. He begins with short biographies of the three athletes, showing the sacrifices and hard work that led all three disadvantaged boys to Mexico. He then reminds us of the political context of the games. This was, after all 1968, the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the year that France was paralyzed by manifestations. The Mexican government was brutally quashing student rebellions so that they would not interfere with the games.
Australia had its own history of discrimination against the aborigines who were not represented at the games. Norman was a religious man, humanist and critic of Australia’s White Australia Policy, but hardly a revolutionary. When Smith and Carlos decided to hold up their black-gloved arms on the podium, they were the first athletes to do so. They later argued their stance was not militant or a ‘black power’ salute, but a ‘human rights salute.’ Norman decided to support his fellow-victors by wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badge. When Carlos discovered he had left his gloves at the Olympic Village, it was Norman who suggested each wear one, hence the left handed salute.
Harry Edwards, founder of the OPHR, urged athletes to boycott the games, but few did. Many felt a boycott would be less effective than the triumph of black athletes and a visible stand on the podium.
By raising their hands and bowing their heads during the Star-Spangled Banner, they became heroes for many, but deviants for the majority of spectators, who booed as they exited the stadium. It is doubtful they ever imagined the disproportionate backlash that their selfless, non-violent act would unleash. For Smith, Carlos and Norman had not reckoned on the wrath of IOC Commissioner Avery Brundage who ensured that they were suspended from the U.S. team and that their lives were ruined.
The Australian media turned on Norman and Australian Olympic Committee’s baseless grudge against Norman denied him the chance to win a medal in Munich in 1972 although he was the favourite to win gold. The baseless grudge against Norman continued into the new millennium when he was not invited to attend the 2000 Sydney Olympics in an official capacity. Fittingly, the US team flew him to Sydney as an American guest.
The film hasn’t the time to examine the long reign of Brundage, a key player in the story. As President of the US Olympic Committee in 1936 he had not objected to Hitler’s salute during the games. He claimed it was a national gesture, even though the IOC Charter specifically stated that the games are between athletes, not nations. In Munich, his final games as IOC Commissioner, he refused to allow the games to be cancelled after the murder of 11 Israeli athletes, arguing that the Olympics should not politicized.
Norman was reunited with Smith and Carlos for the film which the three medallists surely hoped would vindicate them for posterity. Their memories will move you to tears. Norman comes across as a wonderful, reflective man with a sense of humour and not a trace of malice against those who ruined his life. It is reassuring to know that he viewed a rough cut of the film before his untimely death at the age of 64. Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral.