1968 Olympics revisited: Prep for 2021's 200-meter final

Herb Strentz reviews the most famous 200-meter final in Olympic history and its aftermath. -promoted by Laura Belin

With the 2021 Olympics nearing the finish line, one of many track events to watch will be the 200-meter men’s final, scheduled for Wednesday, August 4.

While we don’t know who this year’s finalists will be, we can say with certainty the 1968 final for the 200-meter distance will be revisited, as it is every Olympiad and many times between.

Judging from past press coverage, Peter Norman will not be mentioned. That’s because on the 200-meter victory stand, two Black Americans, Tommie Smith (gold medalist) and John Carlos (bronze) raised gloved fists in a Black Lives Matter protest — back then it was called Black Power.

Bear with me. Over the years, I’ve been more and more fed up with how our press seldom identifies and outright ignores “What’s His Name?”–also known as Peter Norman, the silver medalist and third person on the victory stand.

Here are some useful perspectives on that historic 200-meter medal ceremony and its aftermath.

Long-lasting fallout

Carlos and Smith were ousted from the Olympic Village and harshly criticized for bringing politics into sport. Norman may have suffered even more in his native Australia, in which white supremacy was a government policy into the 1970s. He never was accepted for the Australia Olympic team again, even though he set and briefly held the 200-meter world record in a 1968 heat, and his subsequent performances warranted Olympic status in 1972.

A pariah in his own country, Norman was invited to be part of the U.S. Olympic delegation when the Olympics were held in Sydney, Australia, in 2000. He died in 2006; Smith and Carlos were among his pallbearers. The Australian Parliament apologized for his mistreatment in 2012.

Media voices

News coverage and commentary in the U.S. was, to put it mildly, unsympathetic to the Black Power protest. Perhaps the most quoted line from that coverage came from Brent Musburger. He went on to become a famed sports broadcaster, but as a 29-year-old columnist for the Chicago American in 1968, he wrote, “Smith and Carlos looked like a couple of black-skinned storm troopers.”

By far, the strongest media voice in support of Smith and Carlos (and Black athletes generally) was the ABC sports personality, Howard Cosell. He blasted the U.S. Olympic Committee for decreeing that Black athletes should be well-behaved participants and not protest their years of suffering before the games, oppression to which they would return afterward. The two-minute video from October 1968 is worth watching in its entirety. Partial transcript:

The U.S. Olympic Committee, in the manner of the fabled village of Brigadoon, appears on the scene once every four years. It is, in the main, a group of pompous, arrogant, medieval-minded men who regard the games as a private social preserve for their tiny clique. They view participation in the games as a privilege, not as a right earned by competition.

They say the games are sports, not politics–something separate and apart from the realities of life. But the Black athlete says he is part of a revolution in America, a revolution designed to produce dignity for the Black man, and that he is a human being before he is an athlete.

He says his life in America is filled with injustice, that he wants equality everywhere, not just within the arena. He says that he will not be used once every four years on behalf of a group that ignores what happens to him every day of all the years.

He says he earns participation, wins fairly, and that he will use his prominence earned within the arena to better his plight outside of it. […] He’s aware of backlash but says he’s had it for 400 years.

And so, the Olympic Games for the United States have become a kind of America in microcosm: a county torn apart. Where will it all end? Don’t ask the the U.S. Olympic Committee. They’ve been too busy preparing for a VIP cocktail party next Monday night in the lush new Camino Royale.

An Olympic tradition of accepting bigotry

Avery Brundage, perhaps the dominant Olympic figure of the 20th century, viewed concerns about racism and discrimination with alarm. Brundage was president of the American Olympic Committee from 1928 to 1953 and president of the International Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972, having been on the IOC since 1936. The record suggests he was as upset with the Smith-Carlos-Norman protest as he had been pleased with Adolf Hitler’s management of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

After meeting with Hitler and other Nazi officials, Brundadge assured those concerned they had nothing to fear about holding the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Oliver Hilmes noted in a 2018 article for Slate,

Informed that Jews could not be members of a German sports club, Brundage replied, “In my club in Chicago, Jews are not permitted either.” The American visitor couldn’t recognize any discrimination in what he saw in Germany. After his return to the U.S., Brundage explained: “I was given positive assurance in writing … that there will be no discrimination against Jews. You can’t ask more than that and I think the guarantee will be fulfilled.”

Brundage blamed a Jewish-Communist conspiracy for urging a boycott of the Olympics because of Nazi actions against Jews. Thirty-two years later, he had to deal with another boycott threat. Activists formed the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) in late 1967, urging a Black boycott of the Mexico City games to protest racism and segregation. Norman wore an OPHR badge on the victory stand with Carlos and Smith.

Outraged by the medal ceremony protest, Brundage ordered Smith and Carlos expelled from the Olympic village and threatened to expel the entire U.S. track team if his order wasn’t carried out.

Most famous 1936 Olympian weighs in

Brundage was not the only major figure from the 1936 Olympics who attended the 1968 games. The Black American sprinter Jesse Owens had won four gold medals in Berlin, including the 200-meters. His Olympic victories were heralded as a rebuke to the Nazis’ claim to be a master race. 

However, Owens was critical of Smith and Carlos.

These kids are imbued with the idea that there’s a great deal of injustice in our nation. In their own way, they were trying to bring out what is wrong in our country. I told them that the problem certainly belonged in the continental borders of America. This was the wrong battlefield. Their running performances would have done more to alleviate the problem. Rather than the disrespect they showed to our flag and the discourtesy shown to the Mexican Government.

Owens also faulted the press for giving too much coverage to the protest. Sociologist Harry Edwards, a Black leader in the OPHR movement, wrote in his book Revolt of the Black Athlete that Owens had a “ridiculously naive belief in the sanctity of athletics.” 

Where the medalists landed

Over time, the controversy once marked by death threats faded in the U.S. But is revived every Olympiad on television and in articles that typically do not mention Norman.

Smith and Carlos had brief careers in the National Football League. Smith received the California Black Sportsman of the Millennium Award in 1999. Carlos continued to participate in protests.

Norman remained vilified in Australia and was not recognized by his nation at the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Olympics, hence his invitation from the U.S. delegation.

Carlos remarked years later, “If we were getting beat up, Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.”

Even so-called in-depth coverage of the Olympics barely scratches the surface when it comes to the young men and women involved.

Top image: John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and Peter Norman at the 1968 Olympics. Photo by Angelo Cozzi (Mondadori Publishers), public domain, available via Wikimedia Commons.

About the Author(s)

Herb Strentz

  • Herb!

    Calm down. Enjoy the races.

    Yeah, it sucks. People have flaws that cause them to badly treat others who are not like them. Especially after the “not like them” people point those things out and protest. It can be, has been, and likely always will be at times dangerous and/or tragic. It sucks. It is what it is. I hate that saying, but what else can be said? It is what it is.

    That said…this can be a fun time to watch youngsters who like to run fast and do other things in various athletic realms far better than you or I might have ever imagined.

    For me, track and field (known at Olympics level now as “Athletics”) is where it’s at. Because it is the most fundamental of human athletic tests: How fast can you run? (at varied distances) How far can you jump? How high can you jump? How far can you throw? (various objects)

    Only a few other questions come to mind that come close to the above on a fundamental level. For example: How much weight can you lift? How fast can you swim? How perfectly can you symmetrically manipulate/rotate/balance your body in beautiful ways? (The problem here, though, is gymnastics is subject to some level of human judgement, unlike the other contests.)

    But I digress.

    I’m glad you mentioned the 200 meters.

    Go Kenny GO!!!!

    Kenny Bednarik. Ran for Indian Hills JC, Ottumwa, Ia. Had his breakout “Who is this guy?” moment on the Blue Oval at Drake just a couple years ago. Best 200 meters chance for an Iowa guy (sort of, he is a Wisconsin native actually) since Ankeny’s Kevin Little back in the day. Kevin missed out on the Olympics; made the US Olympics trials final, but did not qualify. But he then came back and won GOLD in Paris in the 200 meters at the World Indoor Championships the very next year. Kevin was fast. Very fast. But I think Kenny is faster. Gooooo! Kenny!!! Do it!

    The 200 is a few days off.

    Monday morning (early!) is the pride of Des Moines Dowling and the Missouri Tigers Karissa Schweizer running in the 5000 Meters Final. I wish her well. A few years ago I got to meet her high school coach at the Blue Oval. She’s a nice person, so I’m happy for her to be able to watch her former kid now run in an Olympics final.

    For anyone reading this who likes Track and Field yet you have never been to a Drake Relays or NCAA Championships or a U.S. National Championship (the latter two SOMETIMES held at Drake; cross your fingers for future) — you simply MUST attend some time. It is incredible how many Olympians (past or future) you may witness do their thing really well, or sometimes not as well as hoped. You might by chance encounter proud family members in the stands. That can be fun.

    In Rio 2016 an American medalled in the men’s 800 meters for the first time since 1992. He was back in Des Moines on the Blue Oval a couple years later at the US National Championships. By chance, his parents were sitting right in front of me in the stands. I briefly chatted with them after their kid’s race that day. Like most successful competitive runners, Clayton Murphy has the build of a human antelope or greyhound. Long and lean. He grew up on a hog farm in Ohio. Here is the weird, you just never know, part. His dad is muscular, stout and stocky, not long and lean at all. He just looks like, “Yeah, this could easily be a hog farmer guy.” (He is!) His mom is not long or lean, either, and I swear to God she could have passed for MY mom a few decades back. (Disclosure: I grew up on a farm.) Same hair, same mild mannerisms. I told her I’d watched her son’s Olympic race. She was still in humbled shock and wonder of what her kid had done when she confided to me, “We had NO IDEA he could do that.” That’s believable to me. No one who followed the sport closely (that I’m aware of) had expected him to medal. You just never know. That’s why we watch. (The Murphy parents were also very graciously complimentary of Des Moines on their first visit here, and I had not solicited that at all.)

    The above is just one example of times I’ve run into and talked with family members or even the athletes themselves at Drake. So go do that some time. It’s fun. (When the weather doesn’t suck, which sometimes it does.)

    Clayton has made it through the first round and semi-finals in Tokyo 800 meters this year. If he medals again, great. He has a chance. We’ll see.

    The Shelby Houlihan news earlier this year crushed me. And to a lesser extent the little 100 meter dash firecracker of a girl who had a chance before her untimely pre-Tokyo toke. Other than that, this is a fun time to watch.

    • "it is what it is"?

      I. doubt “it is what it is” should be the acceptable position in dealing with injustice, bigotry, hatred in a society offering comfort, support and hope to the suffering..