At every event where the fist-raising, 1968 Olympic protester John Carlos speaks, he always remembers with respect the silver medalist on that platform, the great Australian sprinter Peter Norman. On that fateful day, Norman wore a patch in solidarity with gold medal winner Tommie Smith and Carlos, and he paid a terrible price upon returning home. Even though Norman was white, or maybe because Norman was white, he became a pariah for daring to stand up for human rights. As Carlos says, “Never forget that there was a time that Australia was as bad as South Africa in terms of its racial policies.” He’s right. At the time there were laws explicitly aimed to dehumanize the indigenous Australian—often referred to as the aboriginal—population.
Today, it’s still the third rail of Australian politics to claim pride and solidarity with the nation’s indigenous people. Damien Hooper is finding this out the hard way. Hooper is an Olympic boxer making major waves both in and out of the ring. The light heavyweight is now a threat to win gold after dispatching highly touted US boxer Marcus Browne. He’s also a threat to be sent home by the Australian Olympic Committee. Before fighting Browne, the 20-year-old’s ring attire included a black T-shirt emblazoned with the Aboriginal Flag. Hooper, who is of indigenous ancestry, knew that he was breaking the Olympics “no politics” rule, which states that you can represent only your country or approved corporate sponsors. (Worth noting that these corporate sponsors include politically neutral entities like Dow Chemical, British Petroleum and McDonalds.)
After the bout, Hooper had no regrets saying, “What do you reckon? I’m Aboriginal. I’m representing my culture, not only my country but all my people as well. That’s what I wanted to do and I’m happy I did it. I was just thinking about my family and that’s what really matters to me. Look what it just did—it just made my whole performance a lot better with that whole support behind me. I’m not saying that at all that I don’t care (about a possible sanction), I’m just saying that I’m very proud of what I did.”
The next day, the International Olympic Committee told the Australian Olympic Committee that they better deal with Hooper or face the consequences. Practice for the team was halted in a very public fashion and Hooper was called in to meet with Australian Olympic chief Nick Green. Green emerged from the meeting to inform the media that the boxer had “looked him in the eye” and was “extremely apologetic.…. He has learned a lesson and he will not do it again.”
But what lesson is being learned? What is being taught not only to Hooper but also to Australia? The Aboriginal Flag is recognized as an official Australian flag, but it’s not recognized by the International Olympic Committee. The IOC is doing nothing less than asserting its sovereignty over the Australian team, and this is drawing peals of protest at home.
A former world champion, the Australian/aboriginal boxer, Anthony Mundine told the Sydney Morning Herald that Hooper “did the right thing.”
“I take my hat off to him for that stance,” Mundine said, “It takes a person with big balls to make a big stance like that. I’ve got his back, all day every day, because he’s in the right.”
Phil Cleary, an Australian politician and activist said, ”Unlike the imperial flags draped around tearful young athletes, the indigenous flag has no history of occupation of foreign territories. Sadly, it’s the representation of stateless people, a people about whose history we dare not speak. Banning this flag is so pathetic it’s funny.”
The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples has also thrown their support behind Hooper “for being proud of who he is and where he came from.”
The Congress recalled that Australian 400-meter gold-medalist Cathy Freeman held both flags following her victory at the 2000 Games in Sydney. Jody Broun, co-chair of the Congress said, “I’m not aware of any formal action by any Olympic body when images of Cathy Freeman were beamed around the world after her 400 meter gold medal win. Those images gave an immeasurable boost to Aboriginal people and told the next generation it is possible for them to also be the best in the world.”
The degradation of Damien Hooper sends a very different message, one in line with what Peter Norman was forced to suffer in 1968. As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself. But it does rhyme.”