The Olympics have long proven to be an excellent stage for socio-political statements. At the 1968 Mexico Olympics, American 200m sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos both raised a black-gloved fist during their medal ceremony to show their support for racial equality. Despite being on the podium that day, Peter Norman’s role in the proceedings have gone largely unknown – hence filmmaker Matt Norman (Norman’s nephew) taking it upon himself to tell Peter’s story with his 2008 doc Salute.
Ably narrated by Chris Kirby, Salute provides its audience with some essential context early on as we learn how Australian liberals were opposing the government’s ‘White Australia’ policy, whilst the big push for civil rights in the US was only emboldened by the assassinations of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedys. This is interwoven with some interesting insights into how the three medallists came to love sprinting, all shown in just enough detail using a combination of archive footage and interviews. The socio-political climates in both countries only help to illustrate just how courageous it was for the Olympians to make their ‘black power’ statement at all.
We should remember that this is ultimately Peter Norman’s story, and his nephew has done a great job of bringing it into the limelight. The potential problem that the familial bond creates never becomes an issue here; the filmmaker himself remains behind the camera throughout, and the former athlete is easily likeable, quick to downplay his involvement whilst talking up Carlos and Smith’s heroics.
His response in the aftermath of the consequences – refusing to bad-mouth Australian officials who effectively refused to acknowledge their nation’s fastest ever sprinter – is just one factor that makes Norman so easy to warm to. It’s little wonder his fellow competitors and contemporary athletes alike hold him in such high esteem; their praise is generous, but it never feels unwarranted for the white Australian who dared to speak up for what was right, regardless of the consequences.
It’s ironic to think that had the black athletes succeeded in boycotting the 1968 Olympics as they had originally intended, Norman (who sadly died in 2006) may have gone down in the history books as a 200m gold medallist, a possibility that the man himself jokingly acknowledges. Salute remains a riveting, eye-opening documentary that, like Norman himself, is undoubtedly worthy of more attention.