Dir. Matt Norman. Australia. 2008.

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The Olympic Games provides memories and images that remain embedded in our consciousness.  Moments of magic and wonder enshrined in time.  From Muhammed Ali lighting the Olympic flame in 1996 to heir apparent Cathy Freeman doing likewise in 2000.  From drug cheat Ben Johnson crossing the line in 1st place in Seoul, with Carl Lewis looking helplessly over asking how? to Steve Redgrave asking himself to be shot if he sets foot in a boot again, only to return four years later for his fifth and final Gold medal.

Yet no image can be as politically charged and polarising as that of two black Americans standing upon a podium with black leather gloved fists high above their heads in a black power salute as the American national anthem was being played in Mexico 1968.

Salute tells the story of all three men on that podium; Tommie Smith the 200m Gold medallist who had set a new World record; John Carlos his compatriot and team-mate who had been pushed into bronze and Peter Norman, an Australian who had taken half a second off his personal best during the heats and final to claim a well deserved, unheralded silver in 20 seconds flat.  A time that could win him a medal still thirty years later.

Personally, when you see the image the focus has always been on the two black men.  The name of the silver medallist had always escaped my attention, due to the volatile nature of the statement made by the two black men in protest of the ongoing American civil rights campaign and the death of Martin Luther King Jr. earlier that year.

This film is made by an Australian company and more importantly directed by Matt Norman, Peter's nephew, who focuses on the story of the unknown Antipodean and how his part in the protest albeit small - he wore a badge supporting the Olympic Group Protest, that he borrowed from another American competitior - and raises him above the position of the white guy in the black power salute photo.

The film uses documentary footage of all three competitors as they went through trials to qualify, and even focuses on the semi-final when Norman nearly beat Carlos elevating him to the Great White Hope.  Norman states that as he neared the line he shouted over to Carlos saying he was still here, which Carlos dismissed with a wave of the hand.  The camaraderie and the respect the three had for each other makes for a wonderful story of Olympian spirit and belief.

Flash forward to a Q&A Norman is doing some 35 years later, and he says how America whose black athletes had threatened to boycott Mexico City had run riot on the track and field events culminating in Hines 100m world record and Bob Beamon's legendary long jump leap into the annals.  Norman drily says, 'I was getting sick of your anthem. Da Da da daa da!' which draws howls of laughter from the audience.

What comes across and is learnt in the documentary is that Norman was not asked to join in the protest, he chose to of his own volition.  This led to huge respect from Smith and Carlos, who suffered the indignity of being met by quizzical and bemused IOC officials who found the salute to be disgusting; and had to be banished from the Games for the remainder of the event.

Smith was an Olympic Gold medallist and holder of 11 different world records yet he returned to a America only able to garner a job washing cars.  This is a travesty of abnormal proportions, Smith could have been as good as Usain Bolt or Carl Lewis in Olympic folklore, yet his own country banned him from the Olympics for the rest of his career.

Norman also had to suffer a lack of support from his Australian governing body, he also never competed in another Olympics, yet he stayed friends with Smith and Carlos for many years.  He spoke at the unveiling of a statue that honoured the moment from St.Jose University; and the two Americans were pallbearers at Norman's funeral in 2006.

Yet as one talking head states, it is a shame that no-one ever talks about the race itself as it was one of the fastest ever, they only focus on post-race podium antics.

However, the black power salute remains a focal point of the Olympic history, an important moment to combat civil rights.  And if the IOC thought three men were bad, they had a whole heap of trouble coming in Munich four years later when the terrorist atrocities took hold and threatened to finish the Games early.

Salute is out from Arrow Films on Friday 13th July 2012 at selected cinemas nationwide.

Jamie Garwood

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