With the 2032 Brisbane Olympics as a long-term goal, the Indigenous Advisory Committee is building opportunities for increased inclusion and participation of First Nations Olympians. 

    A total of 4315 athletes have represented Australia at a modern Olympic Games. Just 60 are known to be First Nations people — and Patrick Johnson is one of the few. A proud Kaanju man, he was the first Australian to break 10 seconds for the 100 metres (9.93) — a national record that still stands — and represented Australia at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games.

    Last year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced Brisbane as the host city in 2032. Johnson sees this as an opportunity to usher in a new era for First Nations communities. “Sport can transcend the perceived differences between race, religion and origin, and unite us through shared dreams and connections,” he says.

    Johnson feels the Olympic Games has the potential to bring the country together by advocating equity, better health services, social justice, economic sustainability, innovation and a fair go for all. “My personal vision is that the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) and the Olympic movement in Australia can embrace and walk together with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through increased understanding and recognition of our cultures, histories, knowledge and rights.”

    Constitutional change

    In 2015, the AOC took a step towards reconciliation by adding point 6.6 to its constitution. This embeds the objective of recognising the heritage, culture and contribution of First Nations people, and giving practical support to the issue of Indigenous reconciliation through sport.

    Matt Carroll AM, who was appointed chief executive of the AOC in 2017, says at first, the committee moved on from this quite cautiously, building relationships with organisations such as the Cathy Freeman Foundation and the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence. “By 2019, it was clear we needed to step that up, particularly around the practical piece,” says Carroll. “To help with that, we established an Indigenous Advisory Committee (IAC).”

    Patrick Johnson was appointed IAC chair and all but one of its members is a First Nations Olympian. Johnson also attends meetings of the Athletes’ Commission, which provides the AOC with advice from an athletes’ perspective.

    “This allows cross-pollination of ideas and underlines the fact that respect for Indigenous culture must be integral to everything we do,” says Carroll.

    Reconciliation Action Plan

    One of the first IAC achievements was to have artwork by Olympic boxer, a Wakka Wakka Wanyurr Majay Yuggera man, Paul Fleming featured on athletes’ uniforms for the 2020 Olympic games. “That was something we accomplished at quite short notice,” says IAC member Beki Smith, a race walker who competed at the 2012 London Olympic Games. “We were really proud to see First Nations artwork on display in the village and at all of the events — and again on the uniforms our athletes wore for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.”

    The IAC also advised the AOC to implement a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), and the “Reflect” RAP was launched in June 2021. “This, along with ongoing work on the next “Innovate” RAP, expresses our commitment to Indigenous reconciliation through sport,” says Carroll. “These aren’t just words in a document, they’re a strategy for meaningful action. That includes building on existing programs and opportunities to increase the practical support we can provide.”

    With a 10-year runway to Brisbane, Carroll believes there is time to establish projects that will continue to have an impact long after those games are over. “This includes finding ways to increase the number of First Nations Olympians on our team,” he says. “We will also ensure Indigenous businesses have an opportunity to provide products and services for both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

    The IAC will be keeping a close eye on progress. “We need to be sure we’re creating more opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to access and participate in sports regardless of where they live — not only as elite athletes, but every day in our communities,” says Johnson.

    The AOC and IAC are also working together to create sustainable pathways to careers in allied roles such as coaching, physiotherapy, sports administration and psychology.

    “I was often the only First Nations person on the entire team, from the athletes through to the high-performance director or the CEO of my sport,” says Smith. “That can feel quite isolating. I also think it’s true for many kids that you can’t be what you can’t see.”

    Positive impact on communities

    Within communities, sport has the potential to transform lives. “The most obvious impacts are on physical health, and the increase in wellbeing that comes with regular activity,” says Smith. “Sport is the language everyone understands. You may not be able to have a conversation, but you can always kick a soccer ball, pass a footie or have a running race. That sense of connection is critical in any society.”

    Sport can also teach young people invaluable life skills, such as goal-setting, collaboration, persistence and resilience. “I learned a great deal from sport that has carried over into leadership and governance roles,” says Smith. “Transitioning from being an elite athlete into this space also felt natural for me because I’m still in a field I’m passionate about and enjoy doing. I’ve been very fortunate in my life and feel I owe so much to sport that I’ve always wanted to give back wherever I can — and now I feel privileged to be part of a group of people who are committed to implementing so many positive changes. Some of the kids who are eight, nine, 10 now — too young to be in the system — will be our athletes in Brisbane. As the parent of an eight-year-old myself, it feels very special to be helping others to get the opportunities that could make such a big difference to their lives.”

    Johnson says he has transferred his drive, will, perseverance and determination to live life through his passions from elite sport to governance. “Governance is just like elite sport,” he says. “Every aspect of you and your team is measured to operate through controlled systems of compliance for a desired outcome while knowing its risks. I constantly challenge my own awareness, education and understanding with the intention of keeping an open mind when creating a cultural shift in the spaces where I work.”

    Corporate input

    Where there are serious goals, there are bound to be hurdles. “There are several challenges ahead, including changing the status quo from tokenistic inclusion to ensuring genuine outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” says Johnson. “Reconciliation will be built on a social and cultural governance framework supported by appropriate and adequate investment, and that must be led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We must be in a position to make decisions and be consulted across all levels.”

    As with any non-profit organisation, funding is a limiting factor. The AOC receives no government funding other than state government contributions to the Olympic Team Appeal. From there, it relies on income distributed by the Australian Olympic Foundation, grants from the IOC, licensing and sponsorship activities, and other methods of fundraising, including corporate partnerships.

    “Corporate Australia can play a very significant role in supporting the work of the AOC,” says Johnson. “As we engage with the Olympic movement, we’ll be looking to both the corporate and private sectors to support Indigenous inclusion in sport as they increase their awareness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, histories, and knowledge.”

    “We want to align with people who are eager to learn about First Nations culture and who will be proud of representing that,” adds Smith.

    For the right organisations, benefits flow both ways. “If you have a RAP, partnering with the AOC adds substance and credibility,” says Carroll. “It makes a statement to the workforce that everyone can play a role in positive change.”

    In June, the AOC announced a partnership with Toyota Australia, Indigenous Basketball Australia (IBA) — the community NFP founded by Olympian Patty Mills — and Basketball Australia to create scholarships for Indigenous coaches. This will provide training for four First Nations coaches from around Australia who can then pass on their skills to young Indigenous Australians around the country.

    “The training and development of these coaches will have an exponential impact as they share their skills and run programs for thousands of young Indigenous Australians in the years ahead,” says Carroll. “We’re starting the program with basketball, but our intention is to expand into other sports over time.”

    Meanwhile, the AOC has nominated a Swimming Australia administrator for the IOC MEMOS Program, which advances professional skills for those in sports industries. Ultimately, this research aims to lay a foundation to ensure there are First Nations Dolphins in the green and gold in Brisbane 2032.

    “We’re very excited to support this nomination as the administrator’s research project is to provide analysis of First Nations people’s participation in swimming and barriers to participation — and a report with recommendations to increase participation and provide talent pathways for Indigenous Australians in swimming,” says Carroll.

    “We’re always learning, but we never lose sight of what Patrick said at very beginning — ‘Don’t walk in front of us, don’t walk behind us, walk with us’. And that is what we are determined to do.”

    Steps towards reconciliation

    AOC changes its constitution to recognise the heritage, culture, and contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait people, and to give practical support to Indigenous reconciliation through sport.

    AOC executive establishes IAC.

    IAC and Athletes’ Commission host Walk With Us online forum to discuss Australian Indigenous history, current issues and challenges of reconciliation.

    May AOC amends constitution to ensure there is at least one Aboriginal and one Torres Strait Islands representative on the AOC Athletes’ Commission.
    June Launch of AOC Reconciliation Action Plan.
    July In drafting the first Australian Olympians Oath, Athletes Commission and IAC include the line: “With acknowledgment and respect for the ancient Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and their ongoing connection to the continent, water and seas”.
    July–August Inclusion of First Nations artwork in Australia’s uniforms/kit for Tokyo Olympic Games. Record number of First Nations athletes represent Australia — 16 Olympians across 11 sports.

    February Inclusion of First Nations artwork in Australian uniforms/kit for Beijing Winter Olympics.

    Indigenous Advisory Committee

    The Indigenous Advisory Committee (IAC) advises the Australian Olympic Committee executive. It meets three times a year with additional meetings for priority decision-making or recommendations. It reports to the AOC and communicates with the 60 known Indigenous Olympians. IAC monitors
    the AOC through the Reconciliation Action Plan and framework for practical engagement outcomes and measures to be led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

    IAC functions include advising on strategy for effective relations with Indigenous communities, delivery of Indigenous practices and protocols for AOC events, developing recognition of Indigenous Olympians’ contribution to Australian sport, and programs for Indigenous communities to aid the development pathways of Indigenous athletes, coaches and administrators.

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