Commonwealth Games: Batman big in land of his forefather

Daniel the Aussie 200m champion and his famous wife pick up baton of Aborigine rights
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In its "Essential Guide to the XVIII Commonwealth Games", The Age, the principal newspaper in Melbourne, carries a four-page feature outlining why Australia's second city is such a special place and how far it has come in its 171-year existence. "You wonder what Batman's ancestors would have made of Flinders Street Station or the Melbourne Cricket Ground," writer Steve Waldon ponders.

Daniel Batman couldn't help chuckling at the idea. When he pulls on his green and gold vest to run in the 200m heats on the specially laid track in the MCG on Wednesday morning he will bear a logo of his comic book namesake on his right bicep. It is to the Batmans of Melbourne, not Gotham City, though, that he happens to belong.

His great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was John Batman, the one-time bush-ranger who founded Melbourne as a settlement in 1835. Hence the Batman Park by the banks of the Yarra River, the Batman Hill and Batman Avenue either side of the Telstra Dome, and the Batman Statue next to the old Western Market.

As a Batman and a native Melburnian, Australia's 200m champion has special reason to covet Melbourne's Commonwealth Games. "Yeah, it makes things a little bit more significant for me," the affable, articulate 24-year-old conceded. "My home is Canberra now but I was born in Melbourne. I feel proud when I walk through Batman Park or when I see the big John Batman statue. I think it's fascinating to see the way the city's evolved in such a short space of time since John Batman came here.

"Originally, my family came from England on convict ships. They lived mainly in Van Diemen's Land - Tasmania as it is now. John Batman thought he would have a sort of an adventure away from Van Diemen's Land. He went there to get away from the criminals, the prostitutes and the rum.

"He reached the Yarra with a party of others and struck a treaty with the indigenous people. The Government didn't recognise it and still doesn't recognise it today. I've taken a pretty strong interest in it all, especially with my wife being indigenous, and with our kids having such a special relation with Australia."

Batman's wife is a very special woman. In Atlanta in 1996 Nova Peris became the first Aborigine Olympic champion, with the victorious Australian women's hockey team, the Hockeyroos - four years before Cathy Freeman struck 400m gold on the track in Sydney. She also became an international athletics champion, taking Freeman's Commonwealth 200m title in Kuala Lumpur in 1998.

Now the proud mother of two Batman children, Destiny and Jack, she is a leading campaigner for belated Aborigine rights - rights that John Batman recognised when he sailed up the Yarra on the sloop Rebecca and concluded his treaty with the area's three main chiefs, the Jagajaga brothers. "After a full exploration of what my object was," he wrote in his diary for 6 June, 1835, "I purchased two large tracts of land, about 600,000 acres, and delivered over to them 20 pair blankets, 100 knives, 30 looking-glasses, 30 tomahawks, 50 pair scissors, 100lb flour and six shirts as payment for the land, and also agreed to give them a rent yearly." In the book The Birth of Melbourne, Tim Flannery writes: "Batman had an enlightened view towards the Aboriginal people and his treatment of them was the closest thing to a fair deal they would see." The treaty outlined laws to protect Aborigines, yet still there were massacres by white settlers and poisoning of water-holes.

"A lot of genocide of the indigenous population went on in Van Diemen's Land," the 21st century Batman reflected. "It's still a difficult subject here. And Australia is still the only country that does not have a treaty with its native people. John Batman sent one to the Government but it was rejected.

"When he sailed up the Yarra and signed the treaty with the Jagajaga brothers... that's probably the most significant step forward for the Aborigine people in Australian history. The treaty is actually on display at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. Nova's Olympic gold medal is there too.

"Nova's done a lot of work for indigenous rights. She's been a treaty ambassador. She's been campaigning to have a treaty recognised by the Government. It's quite ironic to think she's doing that and she's my wife, the wife of a Batman."

Surprisingly, nothing has been made in Melbourne of Daniel Batman representing the host nation in this latest triumph for the city to which his great ancestor gave birth. Not that he would have noticed, having been deep in training at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra in readiness for both relays in the MCG as well as the 200m. He travels to Melbourne today as a genuine medal prospect, topping the world rankings for 200m with a time of 20.45sec.

Back in 1998 Batman was a member of the Australian 4 x 400m team who won at the World Junior Championships. Lately, he has been showing signs of fulfilling that youthful promise under the guidance of a Welshman, Tudor Bidder, the former British Olympic team coach now in charge of track and field at the Australian Institute of Sport.

"Tudor has got me into good shape," he acknowledged. "My weight has come down 5kg in the six months I've been with him. I'm lucky to have him." And Melbourne's Games are lucky to have a slim-line Batman getting ready to fly round the MCG.