Olympics gave indigenous Australians their biggest ever stage

By Mike Corder
Thursday 22 September 2011 09:52

Aboriginal myths at the opening ceremony. Cathy Freeman lighting the cauldron and blazing to victory in the 400 meters race. Indigenous rock group Yothu Yindi's closing ceremony performance.

Aboriginal myths at the opening ceremony. Cathy Freeman lighting the cauldron and blazing to victory in the 400 meters race. Indigenous rock group Yothu Yindi's closing ceremony performance.

From start to finish, the Sydney Olympics provided indigenous Australians with their biggest ever stage and they used it to create lasting, positive images of one of the world's oldest cultures.

Ahead of Sydney 2000, there were threats that Aborigines seeking to highlight decades of marginalization, neglect and abuse would disrupt the games.

Instead, they enriched them.

"I guess it shows there were a lot of people very supportive of Aboriginal issues, and want to make sure that Aboriginal culture is showcased to the world," Gary Ella, head of the games organising committee's indigenous program, said Monday.

"It comes to the stage now where some people have to make some decisions ... and continue to take the reconciliation process forward."

Angry at the faltering process toward reconciliation between Australia's black and white communities, prominent activist Charles Perkins predicted before the games that Aborigines would riot, torching cars and houses to protest their status as Australia's most underprivileged people.

But anger was defused from the first beat of the opening ceremony, which was steeped in indigenous imagery, and the choice of Freeman, an Aborigine, to light the cauldron.

Freeman's rousing victory in the 400 meters was another defining moment for Australia - black and white.

"She's brought the people of Australia together as one group," said Bruce Barber, Freeman's stepfather. "Whether it is Anglo Saxon, Asian or whatever, she's admired by so many people."

Sir Gustav Nossal, chairman of the government-funded National Reconciliation Council, said the Olympics did more in two weeks to promote reconciliation than governments have achieved in years.

"You could not have had a better deal for reconciliation than these Olympics have been," he told ABC radio. "I think the world will recognize that there is a journey of healing - that the Australian people as a whole want reconciliation."

Indigenous themes continued through to Sunday night's closing party, with rock band Midnight Oil wearing black clothes emblazoned with the word "sorry." Aborigines want a national apology for their past mistreatment but Prime Minister John Howard has refused.

Yothu Yindi, Australia's best-known Aboriginal musicians, played their anthemic hit "Treaty," calling for a treaty between white Australia and Aborigines setting out indigenous rights.

Australia's original inhabitants, Aborigines number about 360,000 of a total population of 19 million people. Aborigines have a life expectancy 20 years shorter than the rest of society and are the community's poorest, least educated and most jailed people.

Ella predicted the reconciliation process would be pushed along by the Olympics.

The games were "one of those great events that no one could turn a blind eye to," he told ABC television.

Howard, whose refusal to apologise has angered many indigenous and white Australians, agreed.

"We will continue to have debate about these things but I do think (there is a) sense of cohesion and exhilaration that people felt during these games," he told ABC radio.

"There we were, represented by a team that was, I suppose, redolent of every strand in Australian society - different ethnic backgrounds, Aboriginal and other different backgrounds.

"I think it just demonstrated what a cohesive country we were and that doesn't alter the fact that you are going to have debates about whether you should have formal apologies."

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