Athletes and countries have used the Olympics as a platform to fight against racism because there is no bigger stage in sport to grab the world’s attention.
Athletes and countries have used the Olympics as a platform to fight against racism because there is no bigger stage in sport to grab the world’s attention. USA’s Tommie Smith and John Carlos, winners of gold and bronze respectively in the 200m at the 1968 Olympics, made a resonant statement with their Black Power salute on the podium.
Twenty-two African nations boycotted the Olympics in 1976 after the International Olympic Committee refused to ban New Zealand for their rugby tour to racially-segregated South Africa.
A list of anti-racism campaigners at the Olympics will always feature two individuals who weren’t even black: Luz Long of Germany and Peter Norman of Australia. The two humanitarian champions embodied the true Olympic spirit as they rose above entrenched racial prejudices of that time.
Here is a look at what Long and Norman did at the Olympics and why they will never be forgotten.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics came to be known as the Nazi Games after Adolf Hitler’s penchant to use the sporting event to advance Aryan supremacy. The Nazi party’s dislike of Afro-Americans was so trenchant that it called them “sub-humans.”
Right under the nose of Hitler, however, a beautiful friendship flowered between Long, a prototype of the Aryan race with his blue eyes and blond hair, and African-American star, Jesse Owens.
Without the intervention of Long, Owens may not even have qualified for the long jump final, leave alone winning it to complete a historic haul of four gold medals. Owens was on the verge of missing out on the final after he fouled his first two jumps. One more foul meant his four-gold dream would be over.
Despite being Owens’ closest competitor, Long didn’t hesitate to tell the American to take off well away from the board. Owens heeded the advice as he took off one and a half feet from the board to qualify for the final round by a centimetre. Nothing, then, could stop him from winning the gold with a jump of 8.06m. Long was second with 7.87m.
The American captured his association with Long in these unforgettable words: “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz.”
When Smith and Carlos highlighted the suffering of blacks in the US with their powerful gesture on the podium, they had a kindred spirit in Norman, a white Australian who won the silver medal in the race.
After unequivocally lending his support for the protest, Norman wore a badge of Olympic Project for Human Rights to express solidarity with the Americans on the podium. He later said: “I believe that everyone is born equal and should be treated that way.”
The expulsion of Smith and Carlos from the Games village and the subsequent difficulties they endured in their personal lives pained Norman. “People didn’t realise that Smith and Carlos sacrificed their lives for a cause they believed in, and it was peaceful and non-violent. I was glad I was with them.”