Every day, thousands of runners run around The Tan track at the perimeter of Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens. Many do not realise they pass a boulder inscribed with the Aboriginal flag and a statement about the remains buried beneath. This site of recreation and picnicking was the centre of protests held throughout the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
Sport has long been a field in which Indigenous Australians have excelled, gained fame, and protested against discrimination. Cathy Freeman’s 400m in the Sydney Olympics was proclaimed as a moment that aided “reconciliation”. The on-field protests of AFL players Nicky Winmar and Adam Goodes, however, point to the ongoing presence of racism within Australian society.
The Gold Coast Commonwealth Games present yet another moment in which Australian society has to face up to, and question, the history of British colonialism.
The 60-day long camp in Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens was known as “Camp Sovereignty”, and its organisers, Robbie Thorpe and Gary Foley among them, popularised the term “Stolen Wealth” to refer to the Games.
Leading up to the 2006 Games, the mainstream media was largely dismissive of “Aboriginal agitators”, yet, as this year’s Invasion Day protests have shown, such interests are hardly peripheral or limited to an extreme minority.
Activists at the upcoming games intend to drop “truth bombs”:
The purpose of the protests has always been about getting our voices heard with a message that our land which you call Australia is Aboriginal land.
The holding of mega-sporting events present an opportunity for city re-branding and to act as a “signal” directed at both local and global audiences.
The founding of the Commonwealth Games (originally the British Empire Games) was an effort “to maintain imperial prestige and cement cultural bonds”. That the Commonwealth Games remain relevant in Australian political and sporting culture, suggests that the games have a purpose other than just endorsing “imperial prestige”.
The Gold Coast exemplifies our imagined ideals and way of life. According to the organisers:
…the beach is the last, perhaps the only truly democratic space we have where everyone exists together – interdependent, connected yet highly individual.
The Cronulla Riots of 2005 are clearly ancient history.
The Games, albeit on a smaller scale than Sydney’s feel-good fuelled Olympics, however, were another instalment of the Victorian government’s efforts at establishing the city as the sports capital of the world – complemented by a thriving cultural life.
The Melbourne Games showed that the city prioritised its branding and image as a sports city, rather than a city that had come to terms with its Indigenous history and that was inclusive of a range of dissenting voices.
That there may be ethical, ideological or cultural problems with celebrating being a part of the Commonwealth/Stolen Wealth was hardly a concern for organisers.
The thin veneer of Aboriginal authenticity and endorsement was questioned by contributors to papers such as the Koori Mail which revealed the misappropriation of cultural knowledge in the use of the possum skin cloaks at the opening and closing ceremonies.
Australian athletes do not need to leave the country in order to participate in mega-sporting events held in countries with problematic human rights records. The 1982 Games in Brisbane were one such occasion where activists were able to highlight the hostile conditions of Queensland and to assert a stronger Aboriginal voice in mainstream Australian politics.
The Brisbane protests of 1982 came after the Freedom Ride (1965), protests against the Springbok rugby tour (1971) and the foundation of the Tent Embassy (1972). The Black Protest Committee wrote at the time:
Black Australia has to take the initiative for her own survival. The Brisbane Games provide us with an opportunity to expose the racism of Australia to the rest of the world.
Indigenous interests and politics are given short shrift when many stand to benefit from the pomp and ceremony of an anachronistic, imperialist and self-aggrandising sporting spectacle. The Games are not only this, but also an essential part of the plans of medium-sized cities to position themselves in the global city context.
The “truth bombs” of activists protesting against the Gold Coast Commonwealth/Stolen Wealth Games will barely register within the hype of “celebration capitalism” that sees laws passed in order to maintain order and silence dissent.
The dubious politics of the Games and the gratuitous fawning over Australia’s place in the “Commonwealth” is only part of the broader scheme of the reasons for hosting the games.
Authors: Andy Fuller, Honorary Fellow, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne