Fixed Race

21 August 1999

Australia is gearing up to host the 2000 Olympics, yet its own sporting history is far removed from the spirit of the Games. Some of its greatest sportspeople were denied the chance to make their mark. Why? Because of the colour of their skin. And even today, to be aborigine, is to be a second-class citizen.

Physically, there is no place like Sydney: the deep-water harbour, the tiara of Pacific beaches, the estuaries and secret bays where white eucalyptus rise up from the water's edge. At the city's centre is a stage-set like a small New York, its props the great bridge, the other-worldly opera house and the sparkling art-deco Olympic pool, built in the 30s, with an honour roll of 86 world swimming records, itself a world record. Beside it is Luna Park, a fun- fair announced by a huge face with a slightly demented smile.

This is Australia's facade - or showcase, as the promoters of the Olympic Games prefer. Opening in one year's time, the Games, sing the video choirs, are to herald "a new golden age", with Australians "the chosen ones to take the dream to the new millennium: a dream we all share".

The chosen ones left nothing to chance. When the International Olympic Committee came to inspect the city, the traffic lights were programmed to remain green as their limousines approached. The fascist past of the IOC's president, Juan Samaranch, rated barely a reference in the Sydney press, and the radio in his hotel room was "tuned" to avoid picking up a certain commentator who might raise the forbidden subject. Harbour cruises, lobster dinners, champagne and Cuban cigars were topped by gifts to African IOC delegates of Australian Sports Institute grants, each worth A$52,500 (?21,700). A "sucking-up fund" ran to A$28 million.

On one outing, the wife of an IOC delegate spotted a black man playing a didgeridoo at Circular Quay, where he is a tourist fixture. "Who's that?" she enquired.

"An aborigine," replied one of her hosts.

"Really? Where are the rest of them?"

"Er, in the outback."

Sydney has a large aboriginal ghetto, Redfern, just a five-minute limo drive away from the centre. It is easily distinguished from the rest of the city by an oppressive police presence. The aboriginal legal service, which is based in Redfern, tried to interest the IOC in the Australia its representatives had not seen, the one behind the facade, but there was no time and the atmosphere was not conducive: "Anyone who threatens Sydney's Olympic bid," a government minister had warned, "had better watch out." In Monaco, when the IOC met to decide on the winning city, Australia was presented as an oasis of human harmony, in marked contrast to China, its main rival for the games. Delegates were treated to street performances by aboriginal dancers and didgeridoo-players in full body paint, together with cavorting giant kangaroos and wombats.

Of course, white Australia has long appropriated the art and artefacts of the Aboriginal Dreaming. It was no surprise that the boomerang was adopted as the motif for the Sydney Games. Two Qantas aircraft have been repainted in indigenous designs, and there is an "indigenous advisory committee", headed by the affable former rugby star, Gary Ella, himself an aborigine. When foreign VIPs arrive next year, they will be met by aboriginal elders: "official greeters". And when the Olympic torch is first carried on Australian soil by Nova Peris-Kneebone, winner of the 200m at the 1998 Commonwealth Games, all those revelations of kickbacks, junkets and gifts of A$10,000 necklaces will be subsumed in the glow of an opening ceremony devoted to "mutual respect and reconciliation".

Kununurra is in the remote north of Western Australia. It is ancient, volcanic ground that can seem on fire when the sun rises and sets. The town reminded me of its equivalents in the South African veldt: manicured gardens, air-conditioned supermarkets, Toyota four-wheel drives, large, grey-skinned people. Half the population, however, is black. Where are they? The only employed aborigine I saw was a man holding the "Stop" and "Go" sign at some roadworks. The rest are in the shadows: face down in the park, silhouettes framed in doorways on the fringe of town.

The Olympic torch will come through Kununurra on its way to Sydney. Most of the population will cheer it on - except those black people who cannot see it, having been blinded by trachoma. Australia is the only developed country on the World Health Organisation's "shame list" of countries where children are still blinded by trachoma. Impoverished Sri Lanka has beaten the disease, but not rich Australia, especially Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

I accompanied an aboriginal medical services team making a spot check of local children. A third were found to have trachoma. At Doon Doon school, half the 56 children were found to have the disease. "What if these were white children?" I asked Dr Alice Tippetts. She replied with a look of mock shock and placed a hand over her mouth - like Australian apartheid, it is the unspeakable. The disease is entirely preventable. An infection of the eyelids, trachoma is spread in conditions of poverty, such as overcrowding and the lack of clean running water. Dr Kim Hames, Western Australia's minister for aboriginal affairs, told me that the problem would be washed away if aboriginal children had swimming pools. Why his government did not build swimming pools and surface the roads in remote areas, to keep down the dust, was not part of his convoluted explanation; he seemed to be trying to blame the victims and "the aboriginal bureaucracy".

"By most measures of indigenous health," said Dr Richard Murray, who heads the Kimberley aboriginal medical services council, "Australia is last in the world. The aboriginal people suffer from diseases, like rheumatic fever, that we saw the end of in the Edinburgh slums in the last century - here, it is the highest ever reported in the world - and diabetes, which affects up to a quarter of the adult aboriginal population, causing kidney failure and diabetic blindness. And gastro-enteritis..."

"What's the cause?"

"Poverty. Dispossession. Look at the phenomenon of suicide that comes from a lack of opportunity and hope for the future. It is the young men who bear the brunt. In a typical community where there are, say, 50 men up to the age of 25, one or two will kill themselves, two or three will try and another dozen will give it some serious thought. They come from families who have to live with constant grief, with not wanting to go to bed at night for fear of waking up in the morning to find someone hanging."

At Woorabinda, Queensland, I drove in the dust behind Paul Gribble, who had the coffin of a two-month-old aboriginal baby girl in the boot of his car. She was to be buried that afternoon, after a funeral at Paul's church, St Matthew's. His father and grandfather were missionaries, and the line stops with him. Proud, disillusioned and angry, he referred to "an aboriginal population incarcerated all these years in a prison built by us".

"The first funeral I conducted," he said,

"I found myself irritated by the people wailing, and I screamed out for them to shut up. And they did, and all the funerals after that were silent. Then, one day, I stood up and apologised to them. I told them I was wrong - I believe it wrong that these people continue to die as they do. Look at my deaths register: babies, young men. And it's wrong the authorities harass them as they do: I am the chaplain at Rockhampton Prison, where a third of the prisoners are aboriginal - from 2% of the population."

Woorabinda came into existence as part of the Australian gulag, where people were dumped, bereft of the community and family ties that matter to them almost as much as life itself. The town was run by a "Protector", who exercised total power over those who were sent there: he could exile and punish people, confiscate their belongings, and commit the most recalcitrant to mental asylums (a common solution for uppity blacks). The legacy of that history, says Elizabeth Young, an aboriginal health worker, is that "the [Woorabinda] community now has no sense of itself and is slowly suiciding". In the cemetery, beyond Sebastapol Creek, the ants have bored holes in the white wooden crosses. There are children in row upon row; then young men in the next, and the next.

I am always left incredulous - that is the word - standing in this Australia, my homeland. If I were a black Australian, I would probably be dead now. The life expectancy of aborigines is 25 years shorter than that of whites. Apart from countries at war, Australia has the distinction of having the highest death rate in the world - among its first people, that is. The health of aboriginal women has so deteriorated in recent years that their death rate is now six times that of white women.

When I interviewed Phillip Ruddock, a federal minister given the responsibility for "reconciliation" in time for the Olympic Games, he boasted that the aboriginal child-mortality rate had improved in recent years. He is right; it is now only three times that of white children. In Western Australia, the death rate among aboriginals is higher than the death rate in Bangladesh.

In 1997, the then federal health minister, Dr Michael Wooldridge, made an extraordinary admission: "In my area of health," he said, "there is no evidence of any improvement whatsoever in the last decade . . . the gap [between aboriginal and white health] has actually widened."

Puggy Hunter, an aboriginal leader from Broome, in Western Australia, wrote, "The statistics of infant and perinatal mortality are our babies and children who die in our arms. The statistics of shortened life expectancy are our mothers and fathers, uncles, aunties and elders, who live diminished lives and die before their gifts of knowledge and experience are passed on. We die silently under these statistics."

The Australian government is terrified that the world will find out before the Olympics. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has already distinguished Australia with its first adverse finding on racial discrimination against a Western nation. It is one of many such reports that condemn human-rights violations. Phillip Ruddock, who has been a member of Amnesty International for more than 20 years, agreed that "the aboriginal statistics are truly appalling". I asked him how he felt, receiving Amnesty reports on human-rights violations with "Australia" written across the top, such as: "Aborigines are still dying in prison and police custody at levels that may amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment."

He replied, "Why do they use the word ?may'?" I think he meant the remark to be clever. I pointed out that when his conservative government came to office in 1996, its first act was to cut A$400 million from the aboriginal affairs budget. The following year, the Human Rights Commission handed down a landmark report on the "Stolen Generation" that described how tens of thousands of aboriginal children of mixed race were taken from their parents between the 20s and 60s as part of a systematic policy of "breeding out the colour". The president of the commission, Sir Roland Wilson, said, "We as a committee have decided that what was done meets the international definition of genocide? which is the attempt to destroy a people, a culture."

The report, Bringing Them Home, called for an official apology on behalf of all Australians. Prime minister John Howard has steadfastly refused to make this single gesture, and has also made clear that there will be no payment of compensation. The same week the commission's findings were tabled in federal parliament, MPs spent an hour debating a proposal for a tax on the culling of emus. The report describing genocide in Australia was given half-an-hour of parliament's time, during which the prime minister, the members of his cabinet and most government MPs left the chamber before the "debate" was over.

Wally MacArthur is one of that Stolen Generation. Taken from his mother as a small boy, he was "removed" to the Bungalow Mission near Alice Springs, a euphe-mism for a concentration camp in the bush. As a "half-caste", he was earmarked for a servile role in white society - the girls of the Stolen Generation were usually given to white middle-class homes as domestic slaves, the boys as cheap labour on country properties. I am of Wally's generation, from the other side of the racial divide, and can remember the respectable contempt directed at those like him: in one of my school textbooks, the eminent Professor Stephen Roberts concluded, "It was quite useless to treat [aborigines] fairly, since they were completely amoral and usually incapable of sincere and prolonged gratitude."

It is a pity that Kevan Gosper, Australia's representative on the IOC, has not sought out Wally and arranged for his IOC colleagues to meet him. They wouldn't have had to go out of their way, as he lives above a shop not far from the new Olympic stadium. Wally's name will mean nothing to most Australians, but Gosper will remember him as the man who beat him over 100 yards for the national under-19 title in 1951. Those who have since studied Wally's times believe he was one of the fastest athletes of all time, the Carl Lewis of his day. At 14, and running without shoes, he was the fastest teenager on earth. Known as the Borroloola Flash, he was unbeatable in two states, yet he was left out of the South Australian state team to tour Tasmania, although others he had beaten were included. He complained, and was told that he could go if he paid his own fare. A friend paid it, and Wally duly won the national 100-yard title. Gospar came second, but it was he who was selected for the Helsinki Olympics the following year.

Like other aboriginal athletes, Wally was forced to turn professional. Ironically, he found his racial peace in England, where he became a first-division rugby league star for the Rochdale Hornets - "the fastest winger we've ever seen", according to one sports writer. His club record of tries and goals still stands. "I would have liked to have run for my country," he said. "I was in Wales when the 1958 Commonwealth Games were held in Cardiff. My times were a lot better than the Australian runners who competed. It made me a bit sad."

Eddie Gilbert is another forgotten name. In the 30s, Eddie, a fast bowler, was given special permission to play for the state side outside the reserve on which he lived: he took five wickets for 65 runs against the West Indies. In 1931, he played against Don Bradman, the world's greatest batsman, and bowled him for a duck. "That Gilbert," Bradman later wrote, "sent down the fastest bowling I can remember." On November 11, 1936, the Secretary of the Queensland Cricket Association wrote to the Protector of Aborigines: "The matter of Eddie Gilbert has been fully discussed by my executive committee and it was decided, with your concurrence, to arrange for Gilbert to return to the settlement? With regard to the cricketing clothes bought for Gilbert, it is asked that arrangements be made for these to be laundered, and delivery of the laundered clothes to be made to this office." Thus, they solved the problem of an amazing aboriginal sportsman who dared to be too good. Gilbert was later committed to a mental asylum, where he died, it was said, of a brain disorder.

Australia's hidden history is aboriginal. Few in this sports-obsessed country know that the first Australian cricket team to tour England was entirely black. It was 1868, and the Daily Telegraph mused: "Nothing of interest comes from Australia except gold nuggets and black cricketers." In boxing, Ron Richards is today regarded as one of the greatest middleweights the world never saw; his hardest fights were against the authoritarians who controlled his life and eventually banished him to the penal settlement on Palm Island, where he died. Evonne Goolagong, Wimbledon champion in 1971 and 1980, seldom spoke about the racial abuse she suffered as a young girl. Like many aboriginal Aussie Rules football stars, Nicky Winmar, one of the greatest, bore unrelenting abuse playing for the Melbourne team, St Kilda, until one day, at the final whistle of a game in 1993 against Collingwood, he snapped and wrenched up his jersey and jabbed with pride at his black skin.

Wally MacArthur's oldest mate is Charlie Perkins. They grew up together at the Bungalow Mission, where Charlie's mother, Hetti, was in charge of the girls' dormitory. Charlie was born on a table-top in a disused telegraph station near Alice Springs in 1936 or 1937; he is not sure which. "You learned from when you were a kid to keep out of the way of whites," said Charlie. "Our big treat was being taken to the pictures, sneaking in after the movie had started and leaving before it ended, so that no one would object to us black kids being there. I grew up never knowing if the goodies or baddies won. Very frustrating."

Charlie had never seen a football until he went to a missionary secondary school in Adelaide. At 16, he was spotted by a talent scout for the English club Everton, who offered to pay half his fare to come for a trial in England. He arrived midway through the season, during a particularly bitter winter, and was eventually invited by Matt Busby for a trial with Manchester United. Charlie holds the distinction of turning the great man down: "I was homesick," he explained. "I just wanted to play in Australia."

Charlie returned home, and later became only the second aborigine to graduate from an Australian university. In the mid-60s, he led white students on "freedom rides" into the outback of New South Wales - their objective was much the same as that of the freedom riders who began the desegregation of the Deep South in the US. Spat at and physically attacked, Charlie and his fellow students stood at the turnstiles of local pools, sports fields and cinemas demanding an end to the race bar.

We met shortly afterwards; and when I went beyond the Australian frontier for the first time and saw that which I had never imagined, Charlie was my guide. At Alice Springs, we hired a car and picked up Hetti, his mother, who wore a big black hat; the former dormitory girl was, after all, a queen of the Arrente people. We headed for the government reserve at Jay Creek, where 300 people were corralled without running water, and proper food or housing. The barbed-wire gate was locked; a Department of the Interior sign read: "Prohibited Entry."

"Do it," said Hetti. I reversed the car, revved it and smashed through the gate.

"G'day!" said Charlie, to the white manager, whose ablutions we had interrupted.

"Where's your bloody permit?"

"Lost it, mate."

Today, Jay Creek has no barbed wire, there are houses of a kind and no one needs a permit. But the third-world poverty remains, along with an insidious control, imposed by deprivation and the law. This is the Northern Territory, where not long ago a 16-year-old aboriginal boy was left hanging all night in a police cell and a court sent an aboriginal teenager to prison for a year for stealing a towel (which he had returned). The IOC ought to have seen places like this, or at least read Colin Tatz's remarkable book, Obstacle Race: Aborigines in Sport.

Tatz is professor at Sydney's Macquarie University, where he heads one of only three academic centres in the world devoted to genocide studies. A South African political refugee, he found in Australia echoes of his own country. "People say to me, surely South Africa was an example of dreadful maniacal, pre-meditated racism, whereas Australia was really a case of innocent ignorance. The truth is that there is a tremendous similarity, both in ideology and notions of scientific racial theories: for example, the fuller the blood, the more primitive, while the lighter the skin colour, the more salvageable. The reserves, the exploitative labour, the sexual exploitation of women, the separate health systems, the separate education, the ban on inter-racial marriage, they're all the same."

Obstacle Race is the secret history of aborigines in sport and their achievements, which, says Tatz, "are little short of miraculous". Of the 1,200 black sportsmen and women he studied, only six had access to the same sporting facilities and opportunities as whites. His book is a moving testament to the endeavours of the First Australians to live up to the sports-obsessed culture of the majority. He describes the dustbowls, and the fields of mud and salt and rock, where black Australian athletes have trained and played and won through, often against the odds of their precarious health. There is a photograph in the book of the Rovers Rugby League Club, the 1958 championship winners: most died in their 30s and 40s.

Tatz has little time for the Olympic "spirit we all share", which he regards as fraudulent. The IOC sent its special representative, a Nigerian, to examine conditions here," he told me. "To see if we were a fit and proper country to have the Olympics. What he was interested in was discrimination in sport, but he saw nothing, because he wasn't taken anywhere. I believe he would have been shocked to the marrow bones had he gone to places like Yuendumu in the Northern Territory, where there is an annual aboriginal games of great significance, where there isn't a blade of grass, where there isn't a set of goal posts, where there isn't a basketball court, where words like coach and track and pools and physios and scholarships are just not part of the aboriginal vocabulary. On the salt pan at Lombadina, aborigines play with two saplings stuck in the ground. If he had inspected these conditions, he would have been looking at third- and fourth-world sporting facilities. He would have seen aborigines kicking a piece of leather stuffed with paper because they don't possess a single football or have access to the kind of sports facilities that every white Australian takes for granted, even in poor working-class suburbs where there is a municipal pool, a municipal ground, a cricket pitch or a tennis court or a park of some sort - these things are totally absent in 95% of aboriginal communities."

And are white Australians aware of this?

"I think most would weep if they were taken on a tour of black sporting Australia," said Tatz. "There is a great push to have more and more aboriginal athletes, more and more scholarships for an elite group of sportspeople, because it will be wonderful to say in the year 2000, ?Look, we have half-a-dozen aborigines in our briefcases, which shows that Australia makes no racial distinctions and everybody lives happily in a land of equal opportunity.' But the aborigines who will represent Australia in the Olympics have had to show three times as much talent in order to rate an equal place with whites. Cathy Freeman [the aboriginal gold-medal-winning sprinter] is the greatest thing that ever happened to white Australia because this happy, delightful, fun-loving young lady looks as though she is the representative of all black womanhood. But she is not; she is an aberration."

Recently, Tatz published a monograph, Genocide in Australia, in which he argues that, under international convention, Australia is guilty of at least two types of genocide: massacre ("nigger hunts" continued until well into the 60s) and "state policy and practice of transferring children from one group to another with the express intention that they cease being aboriginal". In acts of genocide, he reminds Australians, "there are three parties: the perpetrators, the victims - and the bystanders."

The violence continues. The aboriginal lawyer Michael Mansell says that the imprisonment rate of aborigines and their rate of death in custody is the highest in the world - higher, even, than in South Africa and the US. If the same rate were applied to whites in prison, 8,000 would have died in the past eight years. The Anti-Slavery Society called this "an apparent policy aimed at terrorising the black community".

Leila and Arthur Murray are Australia's equivalent of Stephen Lawrence's parents. For 18 years they have campaigned for justice for their son, Eddie, who, aged 21 and a promising rugby league player, was arrested for drunkenness and then killed by "person or persons unknown" in the police station in Wee Waa, New South Wales. Although a royal commission into deaths-in-custody found that the police had lied at the inquest into Eddie's death, nothing happened: after sitting for two years, during which it examined case after case, the commission made 339 recommendations, not one of which called for criminal charges against police or prison officers. "If we can't get justice," said Leila, tears streaking her cheeks, "why should they have their Olympic Games?"

"The aborigines are people who know almost no history," wrote the acclaimed Australian historian Russel Ward. "We are civilised and they are not." Guided by a profound sense of racial superiority and colonial insecurity, white Australians until recently denied themselves the knowledge that something unique had been sustained in their adopted land. In the 60s, the World Heritage List described the galleries of sophisticated rock paintings in the Northern Territory as "perhaps the oldest and most significant expression of human creativity . . . the longest record of any group of people". This suggests that the First Australians are the most continuous human presence on earth. Their relationship with the ancient land of Australia is mystical and life-giving; their dispossession almost destroyed them as a people, yet they have produced a renaissance - unmatched in its generosity by Australia's political class. While 150 other countries have enacted land rights for their indigenous peoples, including neighbouring New Zealand, Australia's record has been one of betrayal.

Politicians will use the aborigines to promote up their liberal credentials, then kick them when the breezes of racism blow. Since the High Court ended the historical fiction of an "empty land" and restored limited land rights to aborigines in 1992, hysteria has swept across the vast grazing leases, with government propaganda suggesting a black tide lapping the family barbie. For their part, aborigines have sought only to share the land and its gifts, and to co-exist with whites; for many, their modest ambitions mean merely access, not control.

Last year, the Howard government enacted legislation that effectively took away the common-law rights that the judges had said belonged to aborigines; nothing like it has been passed by a modern parliament. It is this action that the UN condemns as racist. The result has been legal attrition, as new regulations are interpreted differently from state to state, which has left aborigines in a Catch-22 of having to prove their "continuous connection" with lands from which they have been dispossessed. The beneficiaries of the status quo are those few thousand whites who control Australia's richest land. They include Donald MacDonald, federal president of the National Party in Howard's ruling coalition, Kerry Packer, Australia's richest man and owner of the Channel 9 TV network, Rupert Murdoch, who owns the majority of the metropolitan press, and the Sultan of Brunei. Their ownership of prime slices of Australia is seldom questioned, while aboriginal attempts to map their sacred sites are frequently regarded with bemused scepticism, if not derision.

When Pauline Hanson's openly racist One Nation Party ran in last year's federal election, one million people, or 10% of the electorate, voted for her. She became a political lightning rod. But Hanson was always a distraction from the veiled racism of a deeply conservative political establishment. Few commentators recalled that the prototype of the One Nation Party was the "One Australia Policy" espoused 10 years ago by John Howard, then leader of the opposition.

This is not to suggest that all Australians are uncaring. On the contrary, many care deeply about the legacy of their country's rapacious past. Research for the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation has shown that a clear majority of whites want good relations with the indigenous people. In my experience, few young Australians are in doubt that "their" country belonged to others from whom it was taken violently. In the past two years, tens of thousands have signed "sorry books" and sought ways of what they call "reconciliation": a problematic term when used against a background of invasion and theft. Only justice and a political will can end Australia's enduring disgrace.

Some years ago, I met the aboriginal leader Rob Riley. Like so many of his people, he later took his own life. I asked him how he saw the Australian future. "It's simple," he said. "Unless you give us back our nationhood, you can never claim your own."

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