These days, any creeping Olympic dread stems from the inevitable flag-wielding tourist jamboree clogging the Tube, poised to jeopardise our hasty morning latte as we battle ping-pong lovers and Greco-Roman wrestling connoisseurs to get to the office.
But in Mexico, 1968, they had something real to panic about in the build-up to the Games.
Volatile America torn between civil rights activists and Klan members burning crosses, bloody student riots in Mexico pitched against the government, sprawling slums in Mexico City just miles from the Olympic site, the threat of black nations to boycott the Games in a push for civil rights - all this against the backdrop of political regimes frenziedly navigating their way through the Cold War.
This political turmoil, inextricably linked to the global sporting celebration, is captured in all its ironic devastation in SALUTE, a docufilm created by Matt Norman. Norman is the nephew of Australian sprinter Peter Norman who won silver in the men’s 200m, and stood on the podium alongside two fellow athletes who controversially punched the black power salute into the world’s memory.
The film’s essence is a montage of past interviews with the three protagonists of the iconic black power salute photograph: Tommie Smith (gold, USA), Peter Norman (silver, Australia), and John Carlos (bronze, USA). It combines this with grainy original footage of Mexico and the world in general at the time, photographs, newspaper clippings, and other interviews.
This medley of historical sources is kept cohesive by a theatrical voiceover telling us the story behind the photograph; a journey through the “thick bloodied atmosphere of Mexico City”. The vast collection of sources is what makes the film, despite the bafflingly poor sound quality of some of the interviews, as it provides colourful detail to what would otherwise be a straightforward history of social tumult.
For example, Norman explains how he chose to wear an ‘Olympic Project for Human Rights’ badge to take part in the protest just before they walked towards the winners’ podium, and how he advised Smith and Carlos to wear one glove each to make a fist with, as one had forgotten their pair.
The men’s downfall after their risky actions – it was rumoured that there were gunmen in the audience ready to shoot anti-racist protestors – was fascinating. Death threats and a life ban from the Olympics ensued for Smith and Carlos, and Norman was prevented from entering the following Olympics, despite qualifying for the 200m 13 times before Munich. The repercussions were certainly more immense than the photo.
Unfortunately, the last half hour of the film slides into a mawkish hagiography of Peter Norman, with lines such as “a man like Peter makes the world go round” and incessant celebration of his courage and heart, diminishing the impact of what is otherwise a revealing and vivid piece.
Written and directed by Matt Norman, SALUTE is in cinemas 13 July and DVD 30 July.