How a Silent Stand at the Olympics Upended Three Lives, Challenged the Status Quo, Improved Our World, and Built a Lifelong Bond

A silent stand taken by 3 athletes at the Olympics in Mexico City and the impact it triggered can teach us valuable lessons about life and leadership - about bringing together our inner and outer dreams, finding collaborators in unexpected places, bringing change to the world, and building lifelong bonds.

Tommie Smith had just completed the 200-meters finals at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, broken a world record, and won the gold medal. It was time for him to walk to the medal stand, bask in the adulation of the masses, and accept his medal. Smith was living his dream.

Except, this was just his outer dream. He also had an inner dream. As an African American, Smith had seen much racial injustice. His inner dream was to get people to pay attention to this injustice and take action. He had not shared this dream in a major public manner so far, realizing that it would be controversial. Not everyone was ready to empathize with his cause.

So, even before the Olympics, he had devised a plan. Once he showed the world that he’d mastered its game of athletics by winning the gold medal – for which he was the favorite – he would bring his inner dream also into outer expression. He would use his moment in the spotlight to become whole, by bringing his two worlds together, the inner and the outer. The world might then impose consequences on him for shocking it too suddenly from its racism-laced-somnolence. He must have been okay with that, because at the core of his being, he was interested in doing what was right, not what was popular.

And he was not alone. There was John Carlos as well.

Carlos, like Smith, was an African-American runner. He too was a medal-favorite at the Olympics in the 200-meter race. He too had been holding on to an inner dream like Smith’s. Carlos expected to win the silver, and he was right there behind Smith, but, alas! In the final 50 meters, he got overtaken by a surprise burst of energy from a competitor, leaving Carlos with the bronze medal. Well, at least Carlos was going to join Smith on the medal stand. Now it was time to put the plan into action.

Smith and Carlos took off their shoes. They were both wearing black socks, to symbolize the impoverished conditions in which Blacks had been living in America. Smith donned the black gloves he had brought for this occasion, for he planned to make a statement with his hands at the medal stand. The time was nearing. But there was a hitch. Carlos discovered that he had forgotten his black gloves at the Olympics Village. There was no time to go back and get them.

Fate smiled at them that day and brought a little help from an unexpected place. Norman, the athlete who just wrested the silver medal from Carlos, showed an interest in what they were both up to. Carlos asked Norman, “Do you believe in human rights?” Norman said, “Yes.” What Smith and Carlos did not know was that Norman, while being white, was also deeply pained by the racism he had witnessed in Australia, his homeland. Right there, on the spot, Norman decided to support the two Americans by wearing a badge that signified his support for human rights. Noticing that there was only one pair of gloves between Smith and Carlos, Norman gave them the idea that Carlos wear the left-hand glove while Smith wears the right-hand glove.

When the moment came for all three to be on the stand, there was Smith, raising his black-gloved right fist, there was Carlos, raising his left, and then there was Norman, in silent support. Smith and Carlos’ heads were bowed. Later Smith would reflect on what this moment meant, “It was a cry for freedom and for human rights. We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.”

This is how the History Channel, years later, reported on what happened next. “As the American athletes raised their fists, the stadium hushed, then burst into racist sneers and angry insults. Smith and Carlos were rushed from the stadium, suspended by the U.S. team, and kicked out of the Olympic Village for turning their medal ceremony into a political statement. They went home to the United States, only to face serious backlash, including death threats.” And in 2018, the New York Times would reminisce, “A huge TV audience in the United States was quick to rejoice when a courageous Czech gymnast, Vera Caslavska, turned her head away while the Soviet anthem played. They were far less excited when Tommie Smith and John Carlos acted out their own ritual of protest.”

For their actions on the medal stand that day, Smith and Carlos were banned from the Olympics for life. They gradually rebuilt their sporting careers around professional football and coaching. And in 2005, at Smith’s and Carlos’ alma mater San Jose State University, a statue was unveiled to give them the public recognition they did not receive in 1968. Norman was not featured in the statue – he had approved the plan to have his #2 position on the medal stand be vacated so any visitor could join Smith and Carlos on the stand to relive the moment where three athletes, at the very moment when they were materializing their outer dream, decided to shrug off conformity to a system to quietly, nonviolently, and unequivocally express their inner dream.

Norman’s actions did not go unnoticed in his nation. He was severely criticized and then ostracized by the sporting world. He was not allowed to compete in the 1972 Olympics despite registering Australia’s fastest qualifying time, was forced into early retirement from sports, and was regularly sidelined from sporting events, even when the Olympics came to Sydney in 2000. His time of 20 seconds in 1968 would have been enough to win him gold at the Olympics in 1972 – and in Sydney in 2000. “As soon as he got home he was hated,” his nephew Matthew Norman shared once. “He was fifth (fastest) in the world, and his run is still a Commonwealth record today. And yet he didn't go to Munich (1972 Olympics) because he played up. He would have won a gold. He suffered to the day he died.”

CNN has reported that “As soon as the U.S. delegation [to the 2000 Sydney Olympics] discovered that Norman wasn't going to attend, the United States Olympic Committee arranged to fly him to Sydney to be part of their delegation. He was invited to the birthday party of 200 and 400-meter runner Michael Johnson, where he was to be the guest of honor. Johnson took his hand, hugged him and declared that Norman was one of his biggest heroes.”

Norman did not step on the medal stand that day in Mexico City in a very planful manner. There was no strategic blueprint that he was following. Smith and Carlos – they were the strategists, they were the leaders. In that moment, Norman had but a fleeting window in which to make a choice for himself. Was he going to snub Smith and Carlos, politely shrug them off, or join them? There was no time for debating or dithering. It was going to be now or never.

Norman’s choice that day was to follow Smith and Carlos’ example. But really, he was following his own conscience. He was bringing his inner and outer worlds into harmony. He was allowing himself to see a larger purpose in his being on the stand that day. He would, like Smith and Carlos, step on the stand that day to take a stand that dearly mattered to him. In seeking to make the world more whole, he, like Smith and Carlos, was making himself whole. In an interview with the New York Times in 2000, Norman expressed no bitterness or regret in reflecting on what happened that day in 1968. “I won a silver medal. But really, I ended up running the fastest race of my life to become part of something that transcended the Games.”

Smith and Carlos stayed lifelong friends with Norman, and when Norman died in 2006, they were both pallbearers at his funeral. Carlos reflected on what happened when the three of them took an epic stand at the medal ceremony in 1968. “Many people in Australia didn't particularly understand. ‘Why would that young white fella go over and stand with those black individuals?’… He just happened to be a white guy, an Australian white guy, between two black guys in the victory stand believing in the same thing…[Norman] never flinched, he never turned his eye or his head. When I looked into his eyes, I saw nothing but love…[Norman] was stern about what he stood for. I respect him and love him for the rest of my life, as much as I did the first time I looked in his eyes. I think it was a divine moment, a spiritual moment from God to set a precedent for the world to see – even though they have never told the story.”

Smith, Carlos, and Norman. Three athletes who each came to Mexico City deeply pained by a world he wished to see more perfect. A providential, split-second result on the tracks united them to take a stand that forever upended their lives – and enriched ours. Perhaps if we, too, pause during this holiday to reflect on how to harmonize our inner and outer dreams, we will discover a way to take the right stand at the right moment, gain an accidental collaborator along the way who becomes a lifelong friend, and advance humanity in a small way that, years and decades later, history might recognize as a defining moment.