Australia's passion and sporting pride is at the heart of our national culture and identity. But remnants from our country’s racist history still permeate our modern sporting arenas. Incidents of racial vilification of our own Indigenous people have plagued our professional and grass-roots sports for over a century.
The iconic photo from 1993 of Indigenous AFL player Nicky Winmar lifting his jersey and proudly pointing at his dark skin after winning a game whilst copping constant racial abuse has been widely regarded as one of the most poignant and powerful public anti-racist statements made in Australian sporting history.
20 years on from the famous photo it was evident not much has changed as Indigenous AFL star Adam Goodes was once again at the receiving end of racial vilification and abuse. Goodes was so tormented and broken by the abuse he received throughout the 2014 and 2015 AFL seasons that it drove him to an early retirement in 2015. If that was not disgraceful enough, it took another 4 YEARS for the AFL to recognise the racism that it complicity helped perpetuate and for the league and all 18 of its clubs to issue a formal apology to Goodes.
Which brings the question if Indigenous people, the rightful owners and custodians of this land, still face racial abuse and vilification, then what hope does that give the next and current generation of aspiring multicultural and diverse young athletes?
Youtube Video: The Australian Dream - Official Trailer
Documentary about racism in Australian sport focussed on the events surrounding Adam Goodes in 2015.
So as we progress as a society into the 2020s it is time to reflect on the standards we hold ourselves to in the sporting arena. The sporting ideals of unity, teamwork and having a fair go can become muddled by the fierce passion of competitiveness that is in the nature of sport. In 2006, the Australian Human Rights Commission published “What's the score?” a report detailing cultural diversity and racism in Australian sport. Although a bit dated now a lot of the findings in the report are still very relevant and applicable today. The report states how the most critical element that acts as a barrier between Indigenous people and people from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds from participating in sport is fear of racism or racial discimination which denies the individuals rights to being treated with fairness, dignity and respect. The report recommends that appropriate strategies, initiatives, grants and projects must be collaboratively made and implemented by federal and state government and sporting organisations in order to effectively combat racial discrimination and encourage participation for Indigenous and CALD people.
Both of Australia’s biggest sporting leagues, the AFL and NRL, have implemented inclusionary strategies to celebrate and encourage diversity in their games. Both codes now have an indigenous round dedicated to our First Nations people, and a multicultural round to celebrate their culturally diverse players.This is great progress to see when it was only not too long ago in 1984 when the last annual game of the ‘Blacks Vs Whites’ rugby league game was held in Queensland between competing Aboriginal and White Australian teams. The NRL also has made international efforts to grow the sport with our Pacific and Asian neighbours. NRL has particularly strong ties to countries in the pacific region as 45% of NRL players have Pasifika heritage.
Fun fact: Aussie rules football has been played in China since the 1990’s and the league dedicates a round each season for select teams to play a regular season game in China. The AFL has also set up its own representative body to expand and grow the game across 20 countries in Asia.
As of 2021, AFL-Asia said there were 8,009 active participants in the sport across Asia, this is a drop in numbers from 14,769 participants in 2019 due to covid lockdowns and restrictions. However, these numbers are expected to bounce back and continue to grow with an estimate upwards of 18,000 participants in 2022.
These efforts to grow the Aussie sport in Asia is representative of a broader overarching effort of the Australian Government foreign sports diplomacy efforts. There is particular emphasis on this strategy to build relations in the Indo-Pacific region. The current strategy, called Sports Diplomacy 2030, was launched in 2019 which aims to:
“ …envisages closer collaboration between the Australian sports codes, industry and government to leverage the nation's sporting excellence in ways that enhance Australia's influence and reputation and advance our national interests.”
- Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Additionally, another area where progress is evident is in diverse representation that constituted our 2020 Olympic Games team. In these most recent Olympic games, Australia sent the most gender, ethnically and culturally diverse team to the Olympic Games, with a record number of Indigenous athletes representing our nation. However this seemingly progressive feat is diminished when you realise the total number of athletes Australia sent to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games was 486, meaning the Indigenous athletes only comprised 3.3% of all Australian Olympic athletes.
22 Olympians on Team Australia had Asian Australian ancestry, covering artistic swimming, badminton, BMX, diving, athletics golf, soccer, rugby, gymnastics, table tennis and weight lifting. However, media coverage on CALD representatives were overshadowed at both the Summer Olympics and Winter Olympics, unlike media portrayal of Asian American athletes and especially, Eileen Gu at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.
In more inspiring news, Indigenous beach volleyball player Taliqua Clancy became just the 10th Indigenous Australian athlete to win an Olympic medal, winning a silver medal in the women’s beach volleyball. Taliqua is accustomed to being a pioneer and boundary-breaker in her sport, as she was the first Indigenous Australian player to represent Australia at the Olympics in Volleyball.
However, although this may be an encouraging milestone to see, there was also controversy around how our ethnically and culturally diverse National athletes were promoted with criticism of a lack of representation in photoshoots and promotional material.
Australian basketball star and Indigenous woman, Liz Cambage called out the lack of representation when she said “How can I represent a country that doesn’t represent me?”
Issues of diversity and representation of CALD and indigenoud athletes pervade Australia’s 2022 Winter Olympics team to an even greater extent. Of the 43 athletes selected for the 2022 Australian winter Olympics team, there were exactly 0 CALD or Indigenous athletes.
So although there is evidence of a growing awareness and action towards inclusion and diversity in Australian sports, whether this is just virtue signalling in the best financial interests of these organisations or true meaningful steps towards stamping out racism for good is still to be determined.
As of yet there have been no specific statements from the Australian Olympic Committee about diversity representation at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.
As a half Chinese- Anglo Australian growing up and playing sport in Australia introduced me to many different people, cultures, languages and even helped me connect closer to my own Chinese heritage. The junior Soccer and Aussie rules clubs that I played for growing up connected me closer to my community and helped me form and understand my own cultural and racial identity.
My teammates came from all types of diverse cultures and backgrounds, but were united under the common goals of playing, winning and enjoying the game. The linguistic or cultural barriers that would have prevented the formation of these bonds and friendships in other contexts were nullified by the physical movement and communication style that sport requires.
A core memory of mine that typifies how sport can unify cultures and broaden horizons is when I first ate Dragon Fruit. My teammate’s Vietnamese Mum had brought lychees and dragon fruit as a halftime snack for our team instead of the typical orange slices which was a new experience for most of the team, but very well received!
The inclusiveness and community surrounding sport makes it a great way to meet new people and connect with a community. To this day I am still making new friends and meeting a broad array of new people of all ages, cultures and ethnicities through sport. Even if it's just by walking down to my local basketball courts and teeing up a friendly pick up game with the other hoopers there, many people are keen to join in irrespective of their English speaking ability, skill, age, ethnicity or any other identifying characteristics.
THE DIVERSE REALITY OF SPORTS HISTORY + FUTURE
The internationalisation and overall growth of sport has had a huge societal impact in most countries as it (ideally) provides a platform for any gender, ethnicity or culture to compete on an even playing field with the shared values of respect, fairness and team unity.
Sport has often been referred to as a melting pot of cultures where anyone can join in and participate, however it has not always been like this and individual sporting teams and athletes (particularly women and people of colour) have been pioneers for breaking barriers and stigmas and promoting equality before they have been accepted by wider society. Although there are still inequalities that permeate the sporting world particularly in relation to racism and pay inequalities between genders in professional sport, there has been great progress in making sport accessible and enjoyable for all types of people irrespective of gender, race, culture or disability.
Understanding our past and our own cultural identity is essential in making progress for the future. A CBMP article Where did the AIS really come from? has previously pointed out the stunning fact that our very own Australian Institute of Sports (A.I.S) was copied from a Chinese national sporting model which was one of the first of its kind that nurtured and trained their elite athletes domestically rather than sending them abroad which was the norm for the time.
The AIS has since become a pillar of Australian society with many of our best aspiring athletes reaping the benefits of its system. Many Australians do not realise the true multicultural history their sporting institutions and athletes have. And in a turntable twist of events the same principles apply to China with regards to their sporting and cultural identity. Commonly referred to as China’s “national ball game”, ping pong is one of if not the most popular sports played in China with an estimated domestic player base of over 300 million with over 10 million competitive players and is at the core of their sporting and cultural identity. However, did you know that the nation’s beloved game actually has British origins. Invented as a leisurely pastime for the wealthy elite, the game was introduced to Shanghai in the early 20th century and exploded in popularity in part thanks to Máo Zédōng’s strong fondness for the game. China now holds the record for the most Olympic medals for table tennis and have had a Chinese player win at least one medal in every event since 1992.
Sport can truly be used as a driver for change and progress in wider society - and history has shown us that it is possible and has already been achieved. Understanding the diverse history and identity of our favourite sports and athletes makes us more unified and encourages future inclusion and fair representation of all Australians, so we can show the world the best athletes Australia has to offer.
Christopher McMaster is a final year Chinese Australian student studying Biotechnology and Marketing at the University of Technology Sydney. He enjoys exploring his own Chinese heritage as well as other Asian cultures that have influenced the multicultural experiences of Sydney.