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“Salute” documentary brings a historic image to life

Three strangers. A single moment. An impact that shook the world and is significant to this day.

In honor of the History Speaks visitors Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Oklahoma Christian University held a screening of the 2008 documentary Salute, a film about one of the biggest third wheels in history: Peter Norman, the Australian silver medalist on the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games who joined Smith and Carlos in a sign of human solidarity.

As Smith and Carlos say in the film, Norman did not have to join in the stance. He easily could have distanced himself from the Americans, or he could have even rebuked them. But that’s not Norman’s style. He stood with the men he viewed as brothers and sported an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge. His illustrious career evaporated in an instant, but his respect for humankind and equality overpowered his want for glory.

Peter Norman comes across in the interviews and footage as a gracious and remarkably modest man, with no sense of regret or bitterness over his horrible treatment by Australian sporting officials. His sense of humor is infectious and he continually downplays his role in the protest, saying he simply felt privileged to be part of the historic moment.

The director and writer of Salute is Peter Norman’s nephew, Matt Norman, and his affection and admiration for the subject is evident in every frame. The younger Norman’s butterfly-effect storytelling highlights the amazing routes that brought such different men together for an important moment.

The fateful 1968 Olympic Games occurred during one of the most turbulent years in America’s history. Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, Viet Cong troops launched the Tet offensive and violent riots threatened to tear the nation apart.

Matt Norman spends considerable time outlining the historical and political context of the momentous salute. Using archival footage, intimate interviews and intelligent narration, he makes clear that the actions of the three athletes were not accidental, but an organic part of an international movement against racism and for equality.

Prior to and during the Mexico Games, U.S. sporting authorities repeatedly threatened African American athletes that any form of protest would lead to instant dismissal from the Olympic team. There were even death threats and a rumor that there was a sniper in Mexico City’s main stadium prepared to shoot any African American athlete who dared stage a social protest. The athletes had real reason to fear for their lives.

After the ceremony, Smith and Carlos were immediately expelled from the games by the U.S. authorities and both lost their jobs. Their stand also led to the untimely deaths of some family members because of their mistreatment.

Similarly, Norman, who qualified for the next Olympic Games in Munich in 1972, was excluded by Australian Olympic officials. They were so eager to punish Norman over his participation in the 1968 protest that they decided against sending any Australian sprinters at all in order to prevent him from competing. So rooted was the vendetta against Norman that they refused to invite him to the 2000 Games over 30 years later.

Salute is much more than a typical sports documentary—it’s the story of true heroes, extraordinary men who seized a moment to change the world. As Carlos and Smith say, God placed them in a remarkable position, but it was up to the individuals and their strength of character to act. This film is a testament to real-world valor that anyone and everyone can appreciate.

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