Work in Sports
Posted: Tuesday April 11, 2000 03:12 PMOlympic Protests
An Uproar Down Under
By Gary Smith
What host country wouldn't feel uneasy? They're arriving soon, those crotchety aunts who look under beds, sniff inside cupboards and just can't bear to keep a couple of cockroaches or hair balls to themselves. They're nearly here, the world media coming to cover the Summer Olympics -- 15,000 crotchety aunts always on the lookout for dirt.
Five months before the start of the Summer Games, that uneasiness turned to pit-of-the-gut dread in Australia last week. Just when the country's house seemed nearly in order -- Olympic venues virtually completed, streets and sidewalks renovated, economy booming and dust finally settling over Games tickets covertly snatched from the public allotment so they could be quietly sold at fat prices to the rich -- damned if somebody didn't open the one closet jammed with Australia's most embarrassing skeletons.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Herron made the blunder when he submitted to a Senate committee a report that debunked as myth the stolen generation, the term used for the legions of Aboriginal children taken from their parents and placed in white foster care and institutions from 1910 to '70. The report, which was supported by Prime Minister John Howard and reflected government wariness over potential compensation claims, stated that the numbers of those affected had been greatly exaggerated and had never exceeded 10% of the Aboriginal population, which currently stands at 300,000 in a nation of 19 million. "There was never a 'generation' of stolen children," the submission stated. "[T]he treatment of separated Aboriginal children was essentially lawful and benign in intent."
Outrage was immediate and widespread, especially among a minority for whom the stolen generation stands as a symbol of so many thefts and so much pain since the arrival of whites in the late 1700s. Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins, who was taken from his family as a child, threatened violence during the Olympics: "Burning cars and burning buildings. Reconciliation is finished now. We are not going to lie down like a mongrel dog so people can come along and kick us. We are going to start biting."
"All bets are off," declared Lyall Munro of the Metropolitan Aboriginal Land Council. "Aboriginal people will rise up and show the world how racist Australia is."
The ill-timed Senate submission re-ignited smoldering Aboriginal fury over the recent suicide of a 15-year-old boy serving a 28-day sentence for stealing oil and paint worth $30, under mandatory sentencing laws that exist in the Northern Territories.
It remains to be seen how effective Aborigines might be at trashing Australia's house during the Olympics, especially since the country's greatest hope for gold in track and field, 400-meter world champion Cathy Freeman, an Aborigine, voiced her view two months ago that politics should be left out of the Games. But recent events have hardened resolve to shame the Games with marches and the opening of a shadow embassy in Sydney to expose world media and VIPs to poverty-devastated indigenous communities and to statistics showing that Aborigines earn half as much and live an average of 20 years less than other Aussies.
The threat of a public relations disaster, along with a possible fracture within his Liberal Party, had Howard racing around with bucket and broom last week. He persuaded the chief minister of the Northern Territories to end mandatory sentences for juveniles who commit minor crimes and issued a half-baked apology to those offended by the submission.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Bondi Warriors threatened to chain themselves to bulldozers and prevent construction next month of the final Olympic venue, the temporary beach volleyball stadium planned for Sydney's most famous crescent of sand, Bondi Beach. Government and Games officials could only groan, look out their windows at Sydney's sparkling harbor and eccentric white-roofed building, and hope to distract the crotchety aunts with ferry rides and opera.
Issue date: April 17, 2000
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