Salute to anti-racist champions

Reviewed by James Crafti

Documentary written and directed by Matt Norman
92 minutes

During the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the black-power salute on the Olympics medal podium having come first and third respectively in the 200-metre sprint. Next to them Australian Peter Norman wore a badge in solidarity with his US colleagues’ defiant expression of opposition to racist oppression. Directed by Peter Norman’s nephew Matt, Salute tells the story of how the three men came to be on that platform together and the consequences they faced for making their political statement.

In exploring this simple act of protest, Matt Norman delves into the personal lives of Smith and Carlos. Smith grew up up on a plantation that his family worked for a white master and Carlos lived in New York City’s black ghetto of Harlem. While not having personal experience of racist oppression, Peter Norman grew up in a poor working-class Australian community.

But the film isn’t simply a story about these three men. In order to fully explore the significance of their political protest action at the Olympic Games, Matt Norman gives an extremely broad overview of the political events leading up to the 1968 games — from the anti-colonial independence struggles in Algeria and Vietnam to the May-June student-worker revolt in France. The film also covers the civil rights movement in the US.

In order to create a full-length documentary out of a two-minute protest action, Norman borrows quite heavily from footage of other world events. This has led some critics to accuse him of “padding out” his film. This “padding” is often more dramatic than the central narrative itself, particularly the five minutes devoted to the student protests in Mexico during the lead-up to the Olympic Games. In these protests, hundreds of students were killed by the Mexican authorities. Salute indicates that the athletes and people around the world knew very little about what had happened, with the Mexican media trying to cover up the massacre and even denying that more then a few dozen had been killed.

With each passing section of the film, I kept feeling a burning desire to check out more documentaries about events peripheral to the film’s main story. From the African anti-colonial movement to the life history of Avery Brundage, the International Olympic Committee president who banned Smith and Carlos from participating in future Olympic games, so much was alluded to but left unexplored.

The film refers to Brundage as the US Olympic Committee (USOC) president who opposed boycotting the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany after the host country excluded its Jewish athletes from participating. Brundage is said to have sought to have the US team’s only two Jewish athletes dropped from going to Berlin.

Each revelation creates a greater tapestry from which an audience can appreciate the bravery of Smith, Carlos and Norman. By the time the three head to the podium to receive their medals, you believe their comments that they felt like they could have been killed for their action on the podium. The events which followed their on-field protest, while not that dramatic, are still shocking and in stark contrast to the usual public feting of athletes as national heroes.

Salute is carefully constructed to raise a myriad of issues in such a way that, while never explicitly mentioning the 2008 Bejing Olympics, an audience is likely to come away comparing protest tactics. In the lead-up to the 1968 Olympics there was a lot of talk about boycotts, particularly boycotts by black American athletes. The argument against US black athletes participating was summed up in a placard which read: “Don’t run in Mexico and crawl at home.”

Peter Norman believed this approach would have been a mistake and speculates what would have happened had Smith and Carlos not run “apart from me winning a gold medal”. He felt that such an act would have prevented the black athletes from sending their message to the world. Further, he believed it would have been used against the African-American athletes who were referred to by the corporate media as “Americans” only when they did something the US establishment approved of but “Negros” when they did something the white establishment disapproved of.

However, this ability to use the corporate media to send a radical political message was only available to the few athletes who could make it into the top three and, as Peter Norman says, “once you’ve earned the right to stand on that podium you’ve got that square metre of the world that belongs to you”. Here Norman ignores the reality that very few athletes (let alone members of the broader public) get such an opportunity. The fact that all three made it onto that particular podium, is attributed by Norman to an “act of God” (not something most progressive activists would want to bank on).

Norman’s emphasis on individual actions by those lucky enough to be in his position can be seen in his statement to the Sydney Daily Telegraph in 2005 that, “Today there is a whole new generation but someone still has to stand up and make a statement on behalf of the down-trodden”. But oppressed people don’t need someone to stand up on their behalf — they need to stand up for themselves as a group, and for masses of others to stand with them and to work with them in creating a better future.

Norman’s emphasis on individual protest action plays into the idea that the only time when a criticism of a government (no matter how oppressive) is relevant is after the individual protester has proven him/herself to be a “patriot”. He goes at lengths to say this because he believes that Smith and Carlos, having competed for their nation, were better able to send a protest message. And while Smith and Carlos were able to send a powerful message by being inside the games, when they took their action they were no more protected from the bigoted reaction to their actions than any unpatriotic radical. Why should black Americans be forced to play that game? As Malcolm X pointed out: “No, I’m not an American, I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism.”

While Carlos and Smith talk about Peter Norman as a “proud Australian”, the film’s exposure of the white Australia policy raises the question of what he should have been proud of.

Also, while the film consistently sides with the oppressed around the world, there is a tendency for the narrator’s commentary to pour a note of scorn on “violent” protests (or “riots” as he sometimes refers to them) including those student protests in Mexico where the police “needed to call in the army”. (Why they “needed” to do so is not made clear). However, regardless of the liberal bias that comes out in parts of the film, Salute still provides much inspiration for radical activists. It goes to considerable lengths to point out that racism has not been defeated in the US, that the struggle for equality is a global struggle and more people need to speak out and get involved in that struggle.