I watched Australian Aboriginal boxer Damien Hooper stride into the sporting arena and media spotlight at the 2012 London Olympic Games, controversially and proudly, wearing a t-shirt adorned with the Aboriginal flag instead of the official uniform. It reminded me of Cathy Freeman at Commonwealth Games events from 1994, and at the 2000 Sydney Olympics when she created a national debate because she insisted on flying the Aboriginal flag in the international sporting arena. These images provoked me into asking what is the message or purpose of these bold assertions of Aboriginal identity and difference, which risks censure from officialdom, or loss of kudos from a society that worships sport and its sporting heroes?
Overcoming Historical Obstacles
I quickly found in early research that the answers would not come from the present, but from Australia’s history of excluding Aborigines and their separate identity from the national and sporting story of the nation, and subsequently from Aboriginal endeavours to find spaces to be included. Historian Colin Tatz compares this battle for inclusion as an historical Obstacle Race (1995) where he argues “Aborigines suffered most from definition by others, so self-definition is clearly the only sane and moral approach to the question.” In ‘Aborigines in Sport’ (1987) Tatz contends sport has given Aborigines “more uplift, more collective pride, more kudos, than any single activity”, but this has been a hard fought game from the beginning, and obviously continues when we see athletes such as Hooper feel the need to force a place for Aboriginal culture when representing the nation. Australians like to think sport and politics are separate ideologies, and that Australia is the land of the ‘fair go’, but these values have always been entangled, and the nation’s treatment of Aborigines is not fair.
Nicky Winmar- Pointing a Finger at Difference
Much of my research focused on Aboriginal Australian Rules footballer Nicky Winmar, which offered valuable insights into how Aboriginal history and the experience of discrimination encourages Indigenous athletes to take advantage of the prestigious sporting spotlight to reject old ideas. At the end of an AFL game in 1993, after yet another game as an Aborigine experiencing continual racial abuse from spectators, Winmar stood in the middle of the arena and proudly pointed to his black skin, which marked his Aboriginal identity and difference. Pointing to normalised racism sparked a series of debates which questioned the perpetuation of a system of racist discourse in the Australian Rules football community that had gone mostly unchallenged until then. Thanks to the widespread debate in popular media, and the iconic photo of his action, the moment lives on to influence ideas about racism in the wider community.
Deconstructing and Reconstructing Aboriginal Identity and History
The racist speech hurled at Nicky Winmar in 1993 started its normalisation process from definitions of Aboriginal identity and character constructed in the colonial past. ‘White’ Australia took control of Aboriginal lives and defined their inferior identity, which consequently pushed them to the margins of society. The racialised definitions burdened Indigenous identity with “the most negative and debasing stereotype” in multiple representations and discourses, until they eventually form and legitimise a dominant consensus of Aboriginal inferiority that has continued into contemporary Australia, contend historians Hallinan and Judd (2009). Indigenous academic Marcia Langton considers that most Australians think they ‘know’ and ‘understand’ Aborigines through old colonial discourses which have been reinterpreted in contemporary popular culture. Winmar’s self-definition of a proud and talented Aboriginal identity can be seen as a rebuttal of past representations, because his action symbolically stripped away ‘white’ control of Aboriginal identity.
Throughout the history of the Australian nation from colonisation onwards, sport has been important to the national identity as a way of promoting the best values and national characteristics the nation desired for themselves, and to put on show to the world. As Historian Colin Tatz explains in Obstacle Race, “sport is not divorced from life, from the civic culture of a society, from its institutions and processes”, consequently sport as a political vehicle is a logical, legitimate way for groups to make political and social statements while they are in its spotlight. Normally and historically, the nation can turn a blind eye to the entanglement of sport, race and politics, and continue to enjoy the status-quo of ‘white’ superiority and Aboriginal inferiority. However, Australia’s veneration of athletes ensures the self-defining expressions of Aboriginal identity in the sporting spotlight challenges and confronts the old images, and ensures the separate Aboriginal point of view and difference is made obvious. The expressions of Aboriginal identity are making a different history and identity visible to a large audience, and point out that some things still need to change.