Ash Barty is undoubtedly an incredible tennis player and role model for young First Nations women and indeed all women.
The superlatives the corporate media are heaping on Barty’s shoulders are justified — as was the praise for Yvonne Goolagong-Cawley and Cathy Freeman – because they are all exemplary athletes who approach their sports with intelligence, humility and determination.
They are also proud to talk about their Indigenous backgrounds and heritage.
But, in a nation built on occupation and racist dispossession, First Nations athletes can be celebrated as “heroes” for their sporting achievements one day, then condemned and vilified the next — especially when they call out the gross injustices facing First Nations communities or when they are judged to have “politicised” their sport.
Remember the reprimand given to Freeman after she carried the Aboriginal flag around the track, after having won gold at the 1994 Commonwealth Games?
Or, when footballer Adam Goodes called out racism, and was vilified to the point where it nearly destroyed him?
The International Olympics Committee decided in April that it would punish those taking the knee during the Tokyo Olympics, or lifting a fist in support of racial equality.
There was no way they were going to allow the Olympics to be “politicised”.
African American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos caused a furore when they took the fist at the 1968 Olympics when receiving their medals. They did it to remind the world that the struggle against racism had to continue. Australian sprinter Peter Norman, who finished second and wore a badge in solidarity, was never selected for Australia again.
More recently, National Basketball Association star and campaigner LeBron James was told in 2018 by Fox News host Laura Ingram to stop complaining and “stick to dribbling” when he said US President Donald Trump doesn’t “give a fuck about the people” in an interview on his web channel Uninterrupted.
The corporate media, the sponsors and politicians love it when the public is absorbed by the feats of individual athletes. The brands rake in super profits, politicians slap themselves on the back and the public is lulled into believing that, if Bartey can make it, things can’t be too bad for First Nations communities.
It sells the dream that if young athletes just work hard, they too can make it to the top.
However “successful” individual First Nations peoples become, their lives remain shaped by systemic racism and generational trauma.
Statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Close the Gap spell it out clearly:
• Thirty percent of First Nations households live in poverty;
• Unemployment rates are at least twice that of non-Indigenous people;
• As ill-health and disability rates are higher, First Nations peoples die 20 years earlier;
• First Nations children commit suicide at five times the rate of non-Indigenous children;
• First Nations prisoners make up 29% of the prison population despite being just 3.3% of the overall population; and
• First Nations children aged 0-4 are more than twice as likely to die as non-Indigenous children mainly because of the mother’s ill health during pregnancy.
Fixing these problems requires systemic change. Racism — another fundamental tenet of capitalism — must be combated.
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