Australia's forgotten Aborigines stand up in the Olympic spotlight

The Sydney Games will give Australian blacks a rare chance to be heard. But their white compatriots are already going on the defensive writes Kathy Marks
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The Independent Online

The temperature is pushing 30C, and the senses are assailed by the sickly smell of exhaust fumes and a cacophony of car horns. On Oxford Street, the main artery between Sydney's eastern suburbs and the city centre, the traffic is boiling hot, bumper to bumper. Over the taxi radio comes yet another booking for a cab to Moore Park. It must be match day at the SCG, the Sydney Cricket Ground.

The temperature is pushing 30C, and the senses are assailed by the sickly smell of exhaust fumes and a cacophony of car horns. On Oxford Street, the main artery between Sydney's eastern suburbs and the city centre, the traffic is boiling hot, bumper to bumper. Over the taxi radio comes yet another booking for a cab to Moore Park. It must be match day at the SCG, the Sydney Cricket Ground.

The city grinds to a standstill whenever there is a fixture at the stadium, just down the road from my home. In offices, telephones ring unanswered; in pubs, men gawp at the television over the bar. As dusk descends, the floodlights are switched on so matches can continue into the warm night.

Australia is a cricket-mad nation; yet, as a television ad running here at the moment confirms, there are critical gaps in the collective knowledge. It features a grainy photograph of 11 Aboriginal men, posing stiffly, serious-faced, their starched collars evocative of a bygone era. Did you know, a voice inquires, that the first cricket team to tour England, in 1868, was an Aboriginal XI from the state of Victoria? It is part of a public information campaign launched to raise awareness about Australian identity in the run-up to next year's centenary of Federation, when the six former British colonies united as one self-governing nation.

Middle Australia's awareness of the history of the indigenous people who occupied the continent for 40,000 years before white settlement is pitifully scanty. It is only in the last decade that Aboriginal studies have been given space in the school curriculum. Prior to that the first Australians were dismissed in a couple of cursory lessons. One friend, now 43, told me: "We learned that they were savages, that they had no technology and that they were the closest example of Stone Age man on earth today."

Real life has not, on the whole, filled in the gaps for the generations of white Australians taught only one version of history by the education system. Aborigines only make up 2 per cent of the population of 19 million. In the cities, they congregate in the most run-down suburbs. In country areas and Outback towns, where indigenous people are more plentiful, they present a picture that is painful to behold, demoralised, living in squalor, plagued by ill health, alcoholism and unemployment.

In recent years, Aborigines have become fed up with living in the shadows. With Sydney hosting the Olympic Games in September, they are preparing to exploit a golden opportunity to draw the world's attention to their plight. As well as staging protests during the Games, they hope to make the most of the international spotlight on the country in the preceding months.

White Australia is jittery about that prospect, particularly since the election last month of Geoff Clark, a radical ex-prize fighter, as chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (Atsic). The principal indigenous organisation, Atsic has traditionally taken a conservative stance. Not any more. Mr Clark has declared that he will probably join the protesters at the Games, rather than stand with visiting dignitaries.

Some whites have already gone on the defensive. I had a telephone call last week from a journalist at the Herald Sun, part of Rupert Murdoch's Australian stable. She asked me about my plans to cover the run-up to the Olympics; I was guarded. Losing patience, she said: "What I want to know is whether you're going to be sending back hackneyed pictures of Aborigines living in shanty towns - or whether you're prepared to explore the multi-layered intellectual complexities of the problem."

Such defensiveness is common. Since moving to Sydney five months ago, I have found many Australians prickly about discussing these issues with outsiders. Try bringing up indigenous people's problems at a dinner party and you are quickly shot down in flames, told that you have no idea what you are talking about.

Black people, meanwhile, are far from united. Cathy Freeman, the world champion 400m sprinter who ran a victory lap with the Aboriginal flag after winning gold at the Commonwealth Games in 1997, recently implored her community not to disrupt the Olympics. That drew criticism from another Aboriginal sports star, the rugby league player Anthony Mundine. "Other great athletes have taken stances for their people," he said bitterly.

Will Australia's laid-back, "fair go" image still be intact when the closing ceremony takes place at Olympic Park on 1 October? That depends to a large extent on the outcome of another set-piece event scheduled for Sydney earlier in the year. In May, at the Opera House, a 10-year formal process of reconciliation for past injustices to Aborigines is due to conclude with the signing by key parties of a declaration and an action plan to redress disadvantage and economic dependence.

Aboriginal people want a commitment from John Howard, the conservative Prime Minister, that the action plan will be implemented in full, and they also want him to make a national apology for the human rights abuses of the past. Both seem unlikely. Mr Howard has slashed the indigenous welfare budget since he came to power in 1996, and has resisted calls for an apology in case it opens the way to mass litigation.

Those early Aboriginal cricketers drifted into obscurity when they returned home, and there have been only a handful of first-class Aboriginal players since then. But indigenous people have distinguished themselves at the highest levels in other sports, and the Olympics could yet be an occasion for healing rather than division. It is up to Mr Howard to decide whether he is prepared to pay more than lip service to reconciliation.

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