Silent Moral Courage-Olympic Flashbacks

When thinking about leading it’s not uncommon to think about moral courage. Moral courage is the ability to do the “right” or “moral” thing even when that can cost you significantly. You may need to push back on policies or movements that are popular, supported by authority figures, or encoded in law. It will most likely require you to be a lonely voice that makes those engaged in the immoral and wrong-headed action uncomfortable and sometimes angry. Exhibiting moral courage requires humility. A leader that exercises moral courage isn’t simply pushing their opinions around about what they believe is right, they’re speaking the truth even when doing so might make them uncomfortable. Think of the white leaders during the time of the Jim Crowe south who benefitted from the system yet spoke out against it because, in the end, they knew that to do so was what mattered for justice to prevail.

An example of moral courage that has stayed with me for some time has to do with an Australian man named Peter Norman. Peter Norman isn’t a name most people recognize. In fact, when someone thinks of moral courage they most often think of people like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and numerous others who suffered for justice. Their fame emerges from the fact they stood up against injustice at great personal cost. Yet, so did Peter Norman. In fact, he not only lost a great deal because of his willingness to stand up against injustice, but he also did so without the recognition and fame his fellow protestors got from protesting the same acts at the very same time. He died without ever being publically acknowledged for his courage or his great accomplishments as an athlete.

At the Olympics in 1968 three men emerged as winners of the 200-meter race. Two of them were black and one of them white. Two of them were from the United States, and one from Australia. Tommy Smith, the first US Athlete won the Gold, and John Carlos the second US athlete took the bronze in the 200-meter race. They knew that they had this small space in time to use their brief fame to make a statement against the rampant racism in the United States and around the world. The third athlete who was not a citizen of the United States nor a black man was told by these two athletes that they intended to make a political statement during the medal ceremony, one of which was to raise their black-gloved hands in the air as a way to protest racism. Peter saw the importance of this moment and knew he could not just stand silent at this important moment and asked how he could show solidarity with his fellow sprinters. All of this occurred only months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr so the whole world was aware of the racial struggles occurring in the United States. Peter also was acutely aware of the racial struggles and discriminating policies of his own country and wanted to give voice to the marginalized people there as well. He was strongly influenced by his religious beliefs (He was a member of the salvation army that believed deeply in the equality and dignity of all people) and felt compelled to be a part of this moment at this time.

While Carlos and Smith are known for the fact they raised their hands in protest that elicited boos, sneers, and angry insults from the crowd, Norman also was looked down on because he chose to wear the badge for the Olympic Project for Human Rights during the ceremony. After the protest, Smith, and Carlos were rushed from the stadium and removed from the US Olympic team. They went home to the United States, experienced a great backlash for what many believed was a sign of complete disrespect, and received death threats. This indeed is an example of moral courage. Later, both men were re-accepted into the Olympic fold and had significant athletic careers. However, Peter Norman was not so lucky.

Peter Norman was severely punished by the Australian sports establishment. He remained one of Australias greatest runners qualifying over and over again for the Olympics but the establishment would not let him run. Norman suffered from depression, alcoholism, and an addiction to pain medication and died as a forgotten figure in Australian athletics. He never was able to re-establish his career as a sprinter and never participated in sports on any significant level after that one act of protest for justice. It wasn’t until 2012 that the Australian government apologized for how Peter Norman was treated. Peter Norman certainly suffered for standing up for what is right and just. Moral courage cost him a great deal.

I look around today and I see so many public figures beating their chests and saying whatever they need in order to appeal to and be accepted by those in power. Standing for moral principles seems to be less and less popular in a world that finds morality and principles relative to whatever the mood of the nation is. Yet, I take comfort and inspiration knowing that there are always people like Peter Norman who will silently suffer and be ostracised for a cause not directly related to them. People who have the moral courage to stand for what is right and just even if they’re not those suffering from the injustice simply because their principles dictate that they must be a witness to what is just. These are the people that will continue to be the conscious of an organization and a nation. Thank God we have them.