Sport on TV: Shameful past of Australia's forgotten black athletes

Chris Maume
Friday 03 September 1999 23:02 BST

THERE WERE a few programmes I could have devoted my time to this week, such as Alistair McGowan's Big Impression, or the Channel 4 documentary about stock-car racing in the Reality Bites series, or a kid's programme about the weird sport of zorbing. But it was difficult to write about anything other than John Pilger's Welcome To Australia (ITV, Tuesday), a film which quivered with dignified anger over the ethnic cleansing that has been so efficiently implemented Down Under during the past two centuries.

There is every reason to suppose that, given the opportunity, native Australians could have made the same impact on sport that their black brothers and sisters from most other parts of the world have done. Unfortunately, they've been a bit busy being wiped out.

"Share the dream, share the spirit" goes the slogan for next year's Olympic Games in Sydney. Share the nightmare, that should read. When the Games last went to Australia, in 1956, there were no native Australians in the team. In 2000 there will be Cathy Freeman (who should really have been interviewed for the film), but that's probably about it.

In school, Pilger was taught, he says, that aborigines were "half wild dogs who devoured their own species." Maybe that's why their life expectancy is worse than that of most of Africa. Just after the '56 Games, Melbourne Rovers, a black football team, enjoyed some success. They all died a while ago, in their 30s and 40s.

The tragic tales pile up through the programme, a log-jam of injustice and bigotry. Wally MacArthur ran the fastest ever 440 yards by a 14-year- old. He was told he could only run in the national championships if he paid his own fare. A friend paid it for him and he duly won. The bloke who came second was picked for the Olympics in Helsinki.

MacArthur turned professional, then came to Britain and played rugby league for Rochdale Hornets ("New Black Flash comes to England" went the headline). He also carried on sprinting, and one year ran better 100 and 440-yard times in the North of England Championships than were achieved at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff the same day.

Eddy Gilbert needed special dispensation to play cricket away from his reservation. In his time he took five wickets against the West Indies and had Bradman out for a duck. The great man said he was the fastest bowler he'd ever faced. It was all a bit embarrassing. A committee of the great and good met to discuss his fate. They decided it was best all round if he went back to the reservation.

Charlie Perkins, who had a trial with Manchester United in the 1960s, was only the second native Australian to graduate from university. By the time he was 21, he says, he had been invited into two white homes. He has an idea what lies behind the hatred. "About 90 per cent of Australian families have some Aboriginal blood," he says. "They're the ones who turn against us."

Not that things have improved. Boxer Ron Richards, Evonne Goolagong, Mal Meninga, Australian Rules football hero Nicky Winmar, and now Freeman, are all aberrations, variations from a deadly norm. Colin Tatz, a professor of genocide studies, found that of 1,200 black Australian athletes, five enjoyed the same access to facilities as their white counterparts. And, as usual, sport mirrors society. One study found that in one outback town, all the black kids were underweight and infested with hookworm, and half had trachoma - an eye disease which is found in Australia alone of the "developed" countries.

Having given a few case histories, Pilger went on to stick the knife in and twist it several times. We learnt about the burgeoning suicide rate among young black men - to kill themselves on Bathurst Island they climb up poles and cling to the electric cables. Young blacks in police custody are twice as likely to die as young whites. And one of the first acts of Prime Minister John Howard, who detests what he calls the "black armband view of history", was to cut A$400m from the aboriginal budget. He and Pauline Hanson constitute only the tip of a very big, very white iceberg.

"Given their wealth and brains, why can't Australians act honourably to less than two percent of their own citizens?" Pilger asks. Until they do, white Australians should not be allowed to use next year's Olympics to paint a shiny, happy picture of a deeply flawed country.

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