Tag Archive: olympics


A couple of different people shared this story with me this last week and it was so powerful that i really wanted to try and capture the heart of it in a blog post so it would stick around for longer. You have likely seen this iconic Olympic photograph before and wondered, like myself and so many others, what is going through the white guy’s mind and possibly questioned his actions:

1968 Summer Olympics picture

Well this story [and seriously go and read the whole thing] gives us an indication of what was going on and it is a powerful story worth spending a few minutes on. The white guy’s name was Peter Norman.

Italian writer Riccardo Gazzaniga comments:

I always saw the photo as a powerful image of two barefoot black men, with their heads bowed, their black-gloved fists in the air while the US National Anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” played. It was a strong symbolic gesture – taking a stand for African American civil rights in a year of tragedies that included the death of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.

It’s a historic photo of two men of color. For this reason I never really paid attention to the other man, white, like me, motionless on the second step of the medal podium. I considered him a random presence, an extra in Carlos and Smith’s moment, or a kind of intruder. Actually, I even thought that that guy – who seemed to be just a simpering Englishman – represented, in his icy immobility, the will to resist the change that Smith and Carlos were invoking in their silent protest. But I was wrong.

To be honest, i imagine many of us had the same reaction and thought. But he explains a little later:

Norman was a white man from Australia, a country that had strict apartheid laws, almost as strict as South Africa. There was tension and protests in the streets of Australia following heavy restrictions on non-white immigration and discriminatory laws against aboriginal people, some of which consisted of forced adoptions of native children to white families.

Smith and Carlos had decided to get up on the stadium wearing the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, a movement of athletes in support of the battle for equality.


But then Norman did something else. “I believe in what you believe. Do you have another one of those for me”? he asked, pointing to the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the others’ chests. “That way I can show my support for your cause.” Smith admitted to being astonished, ruminating: “Who is this white Australian guy? He won his silver medal, can’t he just take it and that be enough!”.

Smith responded that he didn’t, also because he would not be denied his badge. There happened to be a white American rower with them, Paul Hoffman, an activist with the Olympic Project for Human Rights. After hearing everything he thought “if a white Australian is going to ask me for an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, then by God he would have one!” Hoffman didn’t hesitate: “I gave him the only one I had: mine”.

Peter Norman returned home and was completely ostracised for his actions and despite running qualifying times for two different events for the following Olympics, he was not allowed to compete.

For years Norman had only one chance to save himself: he was invited to condemn his co-athletes, John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s gesture in exchange for a pardon from the system that ostracized him.

A pardon that would have allowed him to find a stable job through the Australian Olympic Committee and be part of the organization of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Norman never gave in and never condemned the choice of the two Americans.

The story has a sad ending as far as Norman was concerned, but a powerful one in the greater scheme of things:

Norman died suddenly from a heart attack in 2006, without his country ever having apologized for their treatment of him. At his funeral Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Norman’s friends since that moment in 1968, were his pallbearers, sending him off as a hero.

Only in 2012 did Australia finally recognise his accomplishment, acknowledge his success and apologise for their actions towards him.

“Peter was a lone soldier. He consciously chose to be a sacrificial lamb in the name of human rights. There’s no one more than him that Australia should honor, recognize and appreciate” John Carlos said.

“He paid the price with his choice,” explained Tommie Smith, “It wasn’t just a simple gesture to help us, it was HIS fight. He was a white man, a white Australian man among two men of color, standing up in the moment of victory, all in the name of the same thing”.


What stands out in that story for me is that Peter Norman never received acknowledgement for his actions. He did what he knew to be right. And suffered for it. But didn’t even bother to defend his name or try to make people see what he did. He was content to take a step backwards and let those who the fight was really about take the podium.

What is there to be done in the world around us because it is the right thing to do and not simply because of what it will bring for us? How much are we prepared to risk or sacrifice for what is right? 

In South Africa i think the answers to that first question are many. For me one of the pressing needs as a white person is for me to try and figure out what it means to be a better Ally to my black and coloured friends. To Listen more. i believe that greater economic balance is essential, cos i’m not sure i’m suggesting we all have the same, but i definitely feel like the disparity between rich and poor [and by rich i mean anyone reading this on a computer and possibly phone that belongs to them and by poor i mean people whose struggles are enough food and money for rent and not what meal to order at a restaurant or what label of clothes to buy]. i have no idea how this will happen and so much more wrestling needs to happen and part of that is figuring what it means to live more simply. There’s a lot, but this story is a good reminder that it needs to not be about me, and that it doesn’t necessarily have to be seen [unless it being seen mobilises other people to do a similar thing]. Lots to think about. And do.

so this week i found out on twitter that our south african olympic swimming gold medalist, cameron van der bergh, had admitted to cheating to get his gold medal by doing a succession of dolphin kicks underwater in the pool [apparently only one is allowed] and it bummed me out.

so, as one does, i made a facebook status about it… and was doubly surprised and bummed at how many [mostly christians] wrote comments on my status defending his actions and largely from the perspective that “everyone else does it” which was cameron’s defense as well.

waitasecond, so cheating is okay if everyone is doing it? of course cos how else could he win and because the rule is silly anyways and they policed it at this other competition and so he didn’t have to cheat but this one they didn’t so he really had to and WHAT??!?!?!?

flashbacks to a baptist summer camp where i think i was camp pastor – at the time i was involved in a 6 month course on youth ministry at the baptist seminary [the only seminary coursework i have done thus far] and a bunch of the students who were training to be pastors were at this camp for youth aged 13 to 18 and the guy leading the course on youth work was heading up sports.

somehow i managed to be standing near him when a dispute was brought to him about one of the camp soccer/football games that had just been played where the rule for the game was no players over 18 [or maybe 21?] were allowed to play. one of the students [from my class at seminary, training to be a pastor] was being accused of playing in the one game despite being a few years over the allowed age.SHOCK ONE – his defense: the other team was doing it. so i am standing there not believing my ears and waiting for the lecturer to open a can of something on some part of his anatomy when SHOCK TWO – the lecturer at this christian college completely backs his student and rules in favour of him.

so clearly, cheating is condoned as long as everyone else is doing it. but that doesn’t make it right.

and reading the arguments on the ‘book they all sound pretty convincing [well not all, some of them are downright ridiculous, let’s be honest] but no-one is arguing how okay Jesus is with it. because you can’t. because He is not. i mean, i can certainly not see Jesus standing in condemnation over cameron as if he has done the worst thing ever in life and demanding that he be kicked out of the games [Go, and swim no more!] but at the same time, i imagine there might be a secret sigh, like He probly did ever so often when His disciples just completely missed the plot again, and maybe a fireside chat about how the medals that we chase in life in terms of character and integrity being so much more profoundly important than any the world might hang around our neck.

in fact Jesus had quite a lot to say about how the ‘everybody is doing it’ argument is a more likely sign that you are on the wrong path [see the whole of Matthew 7] – He said things like “the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved”[matthew 24.12-13] and we also read, ‘For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.’ [2 Timothy 4.3-4]

so i don’t believe with any part of me that Jesus would have been okay with what either cameron or the training-to-be-pastor youth leader did and although the event/incident itself may seem more or less trivial to you depending on who you are, there is a greater principle at work, because if i can watch my pastor being okay with cheating in a meaningless football/soccer game then maybe it sends me the message that it is okay to cheat in a business deal, and if i as a young south african being inspired by one of my countrymen can hear that he cheated to get there then maybe that tells me it is okay to cheat in an exam or even on my girlfriend [as long as i can cite examples of other people doing it]

it is a slippery road. to be christian and defend or even applaud unChristlike behaviour.

and a lot of people might be wondering why i am making such a big deal of such a ‘small thing’ and it is because the small things become the big things – the enemy is looking to destroy us and any area where we allow him a foot in the door he will take full advantage of it until he gets such a gap that he can force himself well and truly into our lives…

the bottom line for me, i think, is that you can’t be a Christ follower and then live by the wisdom or ideals or compromise of the world. The term ‘Christ follower’ suggests the following of Christ.

this started out as a hashtag on Twitter i believe, but why should everyone else miss out on the fun…

so far we have such winners as:

Anne Hirsch for North Pole Volting, Synchronised Swinging and Underwater singing

Bruce Collins for Field Hickey and Archrivalry

and of course i have been going crazy but amongst my suggestions are such diverse elements as:

Cross Country Music, Intimate Frisbee, Underwater Signing, Corgi Putt, Table Tenants, Stolen Television Fencing, The Hundred mm Print, dress-[your]-age, the M.C. Hammer, individual discuss, the lesser known Venezuelan Wave

all of these are Rejected Olympic Events… remembering that this is by and large a family show, what other events can you think of to add to the list? let’s have one event per comment… [or high five one someone else mentioned that you thought was particularly clever or witty]

%d bloggers like this: