It was only a few years ago that Adam Goodes was still considered an icon in Australian Rules Football, one of the most important sports on the continent. The indigenous player is successful, but he is repeatedly discriminated against. He is referred to as a “nigger” on social media, as “King Kong” or “coconut”. Once fans roar: “Go back to your zoo!” At some point, Goodes has had enough. In 2013, at a game of his Sydney Swans, he pointed to a 13-year-old spectator who had just described him as a “monkey”. A debate follows about racism, identity thinking and indigenous roots.
Adam Goodes makes a differentiated statement, whereupon he was voted “Australian of the Year” in 2014. “As an indigenous Australian, I have often experienced racism,” he says in the speech. “While it was difficult most of the time, it also taught me a lot. It shaped my values and what I believe in today. «Goodes receives a lot of encouragement, but many Australians suddenly see his self-confidence as a provocation.
The origin should remain in the background
Soon Goodes will be booed regularly at games. In 2015 he celebrates a goal with a traditional war dance. It’s not the first indigenous protest in sport: in 1993, football player Nicky Winmar pulled up his jersey and pointed to his black skin. A year later, runner Cathy Freeman wore the Aboriginal flag at the Commonwealth Games. At the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Freeman lit the flame and a few days later won gold over 400 meters. This victory was interpreted worldwide as a new beginning for indigenous minorities. But has racism against indigenous athletes actually decreased in the past 20 years since then?
“In sport, successful indigenous athletes are respected by the white majority – as long as their indigenous origins remain in the background,” says the Australian anthropologist Amanda Kearney, who studies indigenous cultures. “As soon as this origin is emphasized as an important identification, many Australians feel challenged.” At the height of his career, Adam Goodes was influential, eloquent and healthy. Amanda Kearney says, “By doing so, he was shaking the prejudices that many Australians have against indigenous people.”
A lot of the media in Australia keep referring to statistics: to the lower life expectancy of indigenous people or to their over-representation in prisons. Adam Goodes, who ended his career in 2015, always emphasizes the causes: The indigenous people lived undisturbed on the continent for more than 50,000 years. However, by the late 18th century, hundreds of thousands of them were killed and repressed by British colonists. After two centuries of brutal marginalization, Australian indigenous people were not recognized as equal citizens until 1967. Even then, however, the state often withdrew children from indigenous families, now known as the “stolen generation.”
The access of indigenous Australians to medicine, education and work improved from the new millennium. But even today, many media describe the success of indigenous politicians and scientists as a sensation. It’s the same in sport, says Lawrence Bamblett of the Australian Center for Indigenous History: “For decades the government had locked up indigenous Australians. We weren’t visible. With one exception: sport. “
Cricketer Eddie Gilbert, boxer Lionel Rose, jockey Darby McCarthy: Lawrence Bamblett names a number of examples of athletes who have always been told the same story – their rise from poverty to prosperity through hard training and discipline. In contrast, politics, education and art are still less associated with indigenous people. “Young people are constantly being reduced to deficits,” says Bamblett. “Fortunately, my parents were different: after every negative story they told me a dozen positive ones.”
The roots of the Australian national sports go back to the 19th century. British colonizers established cricket, rugby and football. The changing rooms were mostly closed to the few indigenous players. For a long time, many Australians did not want to admit that their Australian football also contains elements of Marngrook, an ancient indigenous ball game. It was not until the 1990s, with new laws and projects against discrimination, that the professional leagues opened up to indigenous players.
Even the selection of players is racist
But this change has limits: in the population of Australia around 2.5 percent have an indigenous background. In Australian football it is more than ten percent, and has been for 15 years. “Indigenous people are clearly overrepresented on the playing fields, but the opposite is the case in the executive floors of the clubs,” says Barry Judd from the University of Melbourne, arguably the most important scientist in this field. “I can’t think of a single influential trainer with an indigenous background.”
Almost all large clubs and associations are now participating in the nationwide network for »reconciliation«, with campaigns, projects and appeals for donations. How much of that is just marketing? The Australian Football League, for example, names Joe Johnson as the first Aboriginal player to stand up against racism, and that as early as 1904. But at that time, Barry Judd reports, Johnson didn’t even make his origins an issue.
In other cases, too, indigenous players are emphasized positively. Talent scouts are looking for young players with a suitable background. “We call this enlightened racism,” says Barry Judd. “The Scouts believe that a race who produced hunters and gatherers for more than 40,000 years would be well suited to Australian football today. They think that indigenous players can run faster and have a better spatial orientation, maybe even a sixth sense. «On this basis, which was racially motivated and, despite numerous attempts, could never be scientifically proven, a number of players were hired.
Indigenous players are sought after in the lucrative professional leagues, but they are considered outsiders in popular sports. The Fitzroy Stars, for example, an amateur Australian football club from Melbourne, run and trained by indigenous athletes. He had not been accepted into any league for more than ten years. So its members sometimes played in mixed clubs. There they should integrate into society, was a much more common opinion of non-indigenous gamblers. “Our club is a safe place for us,” says Paul Stewart, one of the youth coaches for the Fitzroy Stars. “Here we can be the way we are, without obstacles, without racism.”
The Fitzroy Stars have a hard time finding sponsors. Companies and non-governmental organizations are interested in indigenous clubs and sports festivals with the same intentions over and over again, says Stewart: “It’s about health prevention, clean water, domestic safety. As if we had to be constantly helped from outside. There are hardly any international sponsors. “
Stewart thinks that you have to go on the offensive with a differentiated concept, for example with a temporary preference for indigenous people. He believes that only through quotas or scholarships can indigenous peoples become decision-makers in associations. Only then does visibility become normal.
So 20 years after Cathy Freeman’s Olympic victory in Sydney, the debate about racism continues. Just a few weeks ago, the indigenous football player Eddie Betts was repeatedly depicted as a monkey on social media. Often racism is also expressed subliminally, for example to the tennis player Ashleigh Barty, whose father is descended from the Ngarigo. Ashleigh Barty won the French Open in 2019. Then strangers deleted the word “indigenous” from their Wikipedia entry. Barty, however, is self-confident about her roots. Like so many indigenous athletes before her and – probably many more after her.