Norman grew up in a devout Salvation Army family living in Coburg, a suburb of Melbourne in Victoria. Initially an apprentice butcher, Norman later became a teacher, and worked for the Victorian Department of Sport and Recreation towards the end of his life.
Norman was conflicted with some aspects of Salvation Army beliefs including competing on the Sabbath.
The 200 metres at the 1968 Olympics started on 15 October and finished on 16 October; Norman won his heat in a time of 20.17 seconds which was briefly an Olympic record. He won his quarter final and was second in the semi.
On the morning of 16 October, U.S. athlete Tommie Smith won the 200 metre final with a world-record time of 19.83 seconds. Norman finished second in a time of 20.06 s, after catching and eventually passing U.S. athlete John Carlos at the finish line. Carlos finished in third place in 20.10 s. Norman's time was his all-time personal best and an Australian record that still stands.
After the race, the three athletes went to the medal podium for their medals to be presented by David Cecil, 6th Marquess of Exeter. On the podium, during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner", Smith and Carlos famously joined in a Black Power salute. This salute was later clarified in Tommie Smith's autobiography as a Human Rights salute, not a Black Power salute.
Norman wore a badge on the podium in support of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). After the final, Carlos and Smith had told Norman what they were planning to do during the ceremony. As journalist Martin Flanagan wrote; "They asked Norman if he believed in human rights. He said he did. They asked him if he believed in God. Norman, who came from a Salvation Army background, said he believed strongly in God. We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat. He said, 'I'll stand with you'." Carlos said he expected to see fear in Norman's eyes. He didn't; "I saw love." On the way out to the medal ceremony, Norman saw the OPHR badge being worn by Paul Hoffman, a white member of the US Rowing Team, and asked him if he could wear it. It was Norman who suggested that Smith and Carlos share the black gloves used in their salute, after Carlos left his pair in the Olympic Village. This is the reason for Smith raising his right fist, while Carlos raised his left.
After the salute, Norman's career suffered greatly. A 2012 CNN profile noted that "he returned home to Australia a pariah, suffering unofficial sanction and ridicule as the Black Power salute's forgotten man. He never ran in the Olympics again." He was not selected for the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972 despite turning in adequate times, and was not welcomed even three decades later at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Carlos later noted that "If we [Carlos and Smith] were getting beat up, Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone."
In 1985, Norman contracted gangrene after tearing his Achilles tendon during a charity race, which nearly led to his leg being amputated. Depression, heavy drinking and pain killer addiction followed. Before the 1968 Olympics Norman was a trainer for West Brunswick Australian rules football club as a way of keeping fit over winter during the athletic circuit's off season. After 1968 he played 67 games for West Brunswick between 1972 and 1977 before coaching an under 19 team in 1978.
During his athletics career Norman was coached by Neville Sillitoe.
Norman died of a heart attack on 3 October 2006 in Melbourne at the age of 64. US Track and Field Federation proclaimed 9 October 2006, the date of his funeral, as Peter Norman Day. Thirty-eight years after the three made history, both Smith and Carlos gave eulogies and were pallbearers at Norman's funeral. At the time of his death, Norman was survived by his second wife, Jan, and their daughters, Belinda and Emma, his first wife, Ruth, and children, Gary, Sandra and Janita, and four grandchildren.
In August 2012, the Australian Parliament debated a motion to provide a posthumous apology to Norman. On 11 October 2012 the Australian Parliament passed the wording of an official apology that read:
In a 2012 interview, Carlos said:
The Australian Olympic Committee has disputed the claims made in the Australian Parliament apology about Norman paying a price in supporting Carlos and Smith. The AOC made the following comments:Norman was not punished by the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC). He was cautioned by Chef de Mission Judy Patching the evening of the medal ceremony and then given as many tickets as he wanted to go and watch a hockey match.
Norman was not selected for the 1972 Munich Olympics as he did not meet the selection standard which entailed an athlete equaling or better the Olympic qualifying standard (20.9) and performing creditably at the Australian Athletics Championships. Norman ran several qualifying times from 1969-1971 but he finished third in the 1972 Australian Athletics Championships behind Greg Lewis and Gary Eddy in a time of 21.6. At the time Norman, commented: "All I had to do was to win, even in a slow time, and I think I would have been off to Munich". Norman did not tell the selectors he was carrying a knee injury. Australasian Amateur Athletics' magazine stated "The dilemma for selectors here was how could they select Norman and not Lewis. Pity that Peter did not win because that would have been the only requirement for a Munich ticket".
In the lead up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the AOC stated "Norman was involved in numerous Olympic events in his home city of Melbourne. He announced several teams for the AOC in Melbourne and was on the stage in his Mexico 1968 blazer congratulating athletes. He was very much acknowledged as an Olympian and the AOC valued his contribution." Due to cost considerations, the AOC did not have the resources to bring all Australian Olympians to Sydney and Norman was offered the same chance to buy tickets as other Australian Olympians. The AOC did not believe that Norman was owed an apology.
It has been stated that United States authorities invited him to participate in the 2000 Sydney Olympics after they found out he was not attending. On 17 October 2003, San Jose State University unveiled a statue commemorating the 1968 Olympic protest; Norman was not included as part of the statue itself – his empty podium spot intended for others viewing the statue to "take a stand" – but was invited to deliver a speech at the ceremony.
Norman's nephew Matt Norman directed and produced the cinema-released documentary Salute (2008) about the three runners through Paramount Pictures and Transmission Films. Paul Byrnes in his Sydney Morning Herald review of Salute says that the film makes it clear why Norman stood with the other two athletes. Byrnes writes, "He was a devout Christian, raised in the Salvation Army [and] believed passionately in equality for all, regardless of colour, creed or religion—the Olympic code".
An airbrush mural of the trio on podium was painted in 2000 in the inner-city suburb of Newtown in Sydney. Silvio Offria, who allowed an artist known only as "Donald" to paint the mural on his house in Leamington Lane, said Norman came to see the mural, "He came and had his photo taken, he was very happy." The monochrome tribute, captioned "THREE PROUD PEOPLE MEXICO 68," was under threat of demolition in 2010 to make way for a rail tunnel but is now listed as an item of heritage significance.1999 – Sport Australia Hall of Fame inductee
2000 – Australian Sports Medal
2010 – Athletics Australia Hall of Fame inductee