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Great Divide Is a Barrier That Takes a While to Cross

Like U.S. before it, Australia slowly coming to grips with its racial problems.

September 25, 2000|RANDY HARVEY

SYDNEY, Australia — The opening ceremony for the 2000 Summer Olympics was impressive as a spectacle, even more so for its symbolism. It made a powerful statement that the land belonged to the Aborigines first and would forever belong to them, but that, hand in hand with the more recent arrivals of the last 200 years, everyone can get along.

Perhaps that's simplistic, but it's not easy to get really deep when you're hurrying to clear the field for marching bands.

The ceremony was widely applauded, especially by Aborigines. It's not every day that their message is spread throughout the world--it was accessible via television to 4 billion people--and many Aboriginal groups were so satisfied that they canceled demonstrations planned for a downtown park during the Olympic fortnight.

It remains to be seen whether Prime Minister John Howard will be moved to apologize for the so-called "Stolen Generation," the practice a couple of generations ago of removing children from Aboriginal homes and redistributing them to white families.

But even if he doesn't change his mind, it is clear that Australia is coming to grips with its racial problems. That is no different from the United States, except that we started sooner. Australians who are not already aware will learn it is an ongoing process.

As in the United States, sports stars are playing a role. We had Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson and many more. (Did you hear the Chris Rock joke? "Who ever thought we'd see the day where our best golfer is black and our best rapper is white?")

The Australians have Cathy Freeman.

She is not the first Australian Aboriginal athlete to gain fame. Evonne Goolagong Cawley won seven Grand Slam singles tennis titles.

Nor was Freeman the first to win a gold medal (if indeed she did fulfill her favorite's role in a 400-meter final that took place early this morning PDT.) Nova Peris-Kneebone, who did not advance past the semifinals Sunday in the 400, was a member of the Australians' championship field hockey team in Atlanta.

But Freeman, with her "Cos I'm Free" tattoo on her biceps and an Aboriginal flag at her ready for the victory lap whenever she wins a major international title, is the first to transform her cause into a national cause.


In 1968, two U.S. sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, also used the Olympic stage to make a powerful statement about race. Their clenched fist, Black Power salute on the medals stand after the 200 meters was a protest against discrimination in the United States.

Their efforts, unlike those of the opening ceremony's producers here, were not widely applauded. Smith and Carlos were kicked out of the remainder of the Olympics.

The third man on the medals stand that night in Mexico City, the second finisher behind Smith in the race, was Peter Norman, a white Australian who had finished second.

He knew nothing of the demonstration until he reached the athletes' lounge with Smith and Carlos to await the medals ceremony. When Norman, a Salvation Army officer, heard them discussing their plans, he asked how he could lend his support.

Carlos gave him a badge--"Olympic Project for Human Rights"--that all three wore on the stand.

As the Americans carried out their protest, "The Star-Spangled Banner" was interrupted by jeers from the crowd. Yet they all stood proud, including Norman.

" . . . My attitude was they'd earned the right to do what they thought they had to do with their one-square meter of Olympic dais," Norman said in a 1999 book ("Everyone and Phar Lap") about Australian sports heroes.

" . . . I was glad they were doing it, and I was glad I was with them."

Norman was shredded in the Australian press, which said he also should be sent home, and reprimanded, although not severely, by the Australian Olympic Committee.


Norman was asked during a news conference in Mexico City what right he had to represent Black Power when his own country, with its "White Australia Policy," had such an abysmal record in its treatment of Aborigines. Only one year before had they been granted the right to vote in Australia.

He gave a good answer--"Smith is too good a bloke to blame me for whatever policy my government might have on colored people"--but I know how he felt when asked the question.

A similar one has been posed often to American reporters here by members of the Australian media. How dare we comment on race relations in Australia, they ask, when we have so many problems of our own?

Who better than the Americans to comment, I say, because we've had so much experience with the issue. Race relations in the United States are considerably better than they were in 1968, but there is much work to do. Issues arise daily.

After swimmer Anthony Ervin of Valencia won a gold medal Friday in the 50 meters, debate ensued among American reporters about how much responsibility he has as a role model for African Americans.

Ervin's father is 75% African American. His mother is Caucasian. Ervin won't accept either label. Or any label, except, perhaps now, gold medalist.

I can empathize with him and his parents. My wife and I have an adopted 3-year-old son. His records tell us that he is half black and half white. To our family, he is neither. He is David.

But Ervin's position offends some who argue that, as the first swimmer of African American heritage to win an Olympic medal, he should flaunt his blackness to show black children that they can succeed in the sport.

It's not a bad argument. It is bad that we have to have it 32 years and eight Olympiads after Smith and Carlos shook our world. I hope we figure it out so that some day the only thing anyone will notice about David's skin color is that it's beautiful.


Randy Harvey can be reached at his e-mail address:

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