• Left: Nova Peris and her children. Right: Peter Norman stands in solidarity with Tommie Smith and John Carlos (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Nova Peris has commended the unveiling of a statue of Australian Olympian Peter Norman in Melbourne, honouring his role in an historic civil rights protest, more than 50 years later.
Rachael Hocking

11 Oct 2019 - 4:15 PM  UPDATED 11 Oct 2019 - 4:15 PM

In one of the most recognisable photos in the sporting world, Tommie Smith and John Carlos held their fists in a black power salute after placing first and third at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

The two men were making a stance for all African Americans in the midst of the civil rights movement, and they were severely sanctioned for it. The then president for the International Olympic Committee labelled them a "disgrace", and they were monitored by the FBI. 

Statues honouring the protest have since been erected across the United States, triggering a push in Australia to do the same for the white Australian standing next to them. Peter Norman, who stood in second position on the podium, wore a badge in support of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. His fist is not raised out of respect to Smith and Carlos. 

Mr Norman still holds the Australian record for the 200m metre sprint he raced on that fateful day more than 50 years ago, but he wasn't selected to compete in the following Olympics. A formal apology from the Australian Government for his unofficial sanctioning was issued in 2012, six years after his death. 

Olympian and former Labor senator Nova Peris is among those who have campaigned for recognition for Mr Norman's role in the protest, a moment which this week was immortalised in bronze with a statue in Melbourne. 

"One thing that comes to my mind is long overdue... there's been two or three statues of Peter Norman in America and we finally got ours," Ms Peris said. 

"I would've like to have seen Peter along with Tommie and Johnnie as well, but maybe that's something we can look to in the future." 

Gaining widespread acknowledgement of Norman's story hasn't come easy. Nova Peris' daughter Destiny said as a teenage athlete there was little talk about his activism. 

"Growing up around the track people said stuff about Peter Norman holding the record for the 200 metres, like he's held it since then. But no one said a lot about what he did on the podium," Destiny said.

"Australia kind of pushed that aside, didn't want to acknowledge what he did for a long time."

In 2018, Ms Peris produced a short film about the athlete with Mr Norman's nephew, Matt Norman, called I'll Stand With You. On Wednesday her 15 year old son Jack won the inaugural Peter Norman Classic for under 17s. 

Ms Peris said her fight for Norman's recognition was inspired by his championing of Indigenous rights in Australia upon his return from the Mexico Olympics. 

"He was outspoken about the white Australia policy and the removal of Aboriginal children, so he had a lot of empathy, a lot of understanding of human equality," Ms Peris said. 

"I guess what Peter saw was how sports could bring people together and how a black man or a black woman when they ran it was almost freedom because they were sort of treated as equals."

Ms Peris said there is a long way to go on the path towards equality for Indigenous people in Australia, and that more statues acknowledging First Nations' rights activists are also needed.