Australia's Olympic gold-winning racism and sexism

July 28, 2012

It rarely takes very long into an Olympics for the myth that the games are above politics to be shattered. For the London 2012 games, the myth was smashed well before the games begun.

A series of incidents involving Australian athletes have shown that politics are at the heart of the games.

Despite winning the Olympic trial earlier this year, athlete John Steffensen was not selected to represent Australia in the individual 400 metres sprint, replaced by 19 year old Steve Solomon.

Steffensen, a black runner of South African heritage, said in response: “I’ve put up with being racially vilified by this federation, being discriminated against on many teams.

You know it would help if I was a different colour … A lot of my decisions with my federation would be totally different.”

Steffensen was backed up by Aboriginal boxer Anthony Mundine, who told Triple J's Hack program: “This is a lifetime dream for any athlete to compete in the Olympics, especially in his golden event which is a 400 individual and which he dominated all year ... And now they pick a guy who hasn't raced all year and put him in before him …

“There is racism everywhere in this country. Australia is one of the worst racist countries in the civilised world to be honest ... there is no equality...I think there is racism in sport across the board.”

Athletics team captain Steve Hooker confirmed Steffensen's allegations of racism, saying he had witnessed Steffensen being racially abused by a team official at the 2008 Olympics. An Atheletics Australia official had abused Steffensen as a “nigger” and “jungle bunny”.

Steffensen threatened to boycott the London games, but has since said he will take part. Steffensen is known for outspoken criticism of athletics officialdom, which led him to boycott the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

Some sections of the media have tried to present the furore as the runner's bitterness at not being selected for the 400 metre race. But it is clear Steffensen is thinking well beyond himself.

Steffensen said: “This was never a stunt, like an ignorant few have suggested in the pres,s to bring race into the equation because I was not selected, but more to bring attention to the flaws in a federation selection criteria. [And] most importantly the lack of a no-tolerance of racism and discrimination in our sport.”

The response of Athletics Australia and Olympics officials has been to downplay or reject the allegations. The Athletics Australia CEO said there was no proof Steffensen has faced racism and “Olympic team chief” Nick Green told all athletes to stop complaining and “get on with the job”.

Writing on the ABC's The Drum on July 27, Ben Knight reported: “One coach I spoke to back in Australia — who has a number of non-white athletes in his charge — says his athletes are deeply uncomfortable with the lack of a firm response from Athletics Australia.

“'These blokes are talking about this right now,' the coach said. 'They're wondering if they want to stay in the sport.'”

Sexist treatment of female athletes has also come to the fore.

Five time Olympian Natalie Cook threatened to boycott the opening ceremony unless a female was selected to bring Australia's flag into the stadium. In the previous four Olympics, it has been a male flag bearer. Cook faced a furious backlash for her stance.

Female basketballer Lauren Jackson was eventually announced as the flag bearer for the Australian team.

However, the sexist attitudes female athletes are subjected to was given full exposure with the media treatment of gold medal-winning swimmer Leisel Jones.

A series of photos of Jones preparing for the Olympics were splashed across papers and the internet by Fairfax and News Ltd — taken as Jones emerged from the pool and bent over. The photos focused on the swimmer's stomach with commentators discussing whether Jones was out of shape.

The Age reported on on July 25: “Some feel that Jones is not in the best shape and is treating London as a farewell tour, not taking it as seriously as she had the previous three Games.” News Ltd ran a poll asking readers if they if she was fit to swim in the Olympics and ran a caption that said "The Olympic veteran's figure is in stark contrast to that of 2008."

It was a clear implication for the public to judge whether the swimmer was too fat — and the call to judge Jones was based on assumptions on what an Olympian “should” look like.

Former Olympic swimmer Giann Rooney told radio station 3AW: “I also don’t think Leisel has ever put herself up there as the super slim, incredibly cut athlete. She has never had that body shape, and it’s worked for her for the last 12 years so why would we be changing anything now?

“Leisel has always been very strong through her hips, she has always been really strong through her legs … She needs to be, she’s a breaststroker, and for me I don’t think there’s any difference [in her weight].

The question was whether she looked fit, which came down to a question of body type rather than whether she actually was fit or not.

Greg Baum, of The Age attempted a whitewash of his papers role by stating on July 26 “One is that this is not about body image. No one is saying that Jones is fat. But some are asking if she is in trim and taut Olympic condition, ready to contend for more medals. Nor is it about sexism. The same question was once asked of Grant Hackett, and Merv Hughes, and for that matter, Shane Warne.”

However, no one could claim cricketers Hughes and Warne ever had anything approaching the fitness level of an Olympic swimmer. In the case of Hughes and Warne, who were in far worse shape than Jones, their weight was often seen as part of their public persona. In Jones' case, speculation surrounding her body was pure nastiness — a fact that can be put down to her gender.

Such controversies have not been confined to Australia. Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou retweeted a racist comment from a politician in the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. The tweet said: “With so many Africans in Greece … At least the West Nile mosquitoes will eat home made food!!!”.

Papachristou was expelled from the Olympics by the Greek Olympic Committee “for statements contrary to the values and ideas of the Olympic movement”.

Golden Dawn has subsequently held her up as a free speech martyr, saying: “The only racism in Greece is the racism against the Greeks.”

So even before the games began, it has been a battleground over racism and sexism — added to the battles over corporation domination, civil liberties, militarisation, exploitation of workers and attacks on the homeless.

We can only hope those who oppose all of these are also heard loudly throughout the Olympics.

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