Commonwealth Complicity


I had been in Indonesia during most of 2005, and then, I came back to Melbourne in February 2006. Not long afterwards, my father invited me to watch some of the table tennis as part of the Commonwealth Games. I was ambivalent about the ‘Commonwealth Games’ and its heritage as a colonial hangover, but, I took the opportunity to watch some elite level table tennis: a game I have always enjoyed playing and was quite good at in my first year at university. Table tennis was part of a weekly family ritual growing up in leafy suburban Glen Iris.  Part of my interest in Indonesia, where I had been for a literary residency, stemmed from my discomfort in my sense of Australia having a problematic history, culture and identity. My thoughts on this were fragmentary. Going to Indonesia, speaking Indonesian and having Indonesian friends, was a way of forgetting my Anglo-Australianness. Engaging with Indonesia’s history and post-coloniality was stimulating: I loved being on streets in Jakarta, Medan and elsewhere; talking with people, asking questions and having questions asked of me. With Timor Loro Sae’s separation still fresh in peoples’ minds, I was often questioned suspiciously about Australian politics.

Sport City:

Screen Shot 2018-03-29 at 12.32.44 pmMy father and I walked from Richmond, where I was living, to Albert Park, where the table tennis was being played. We probably walked down the hill of Richmond Terrace, through Gosch’s Paddock, around the Tan and then across St.Kilda Road and down to Albert Park. It was a mild autumn day: calm and sunny. We didn’t talk politics and I deliberately forgot or didn’t question the dubious politics of the Commonwealth Games. At that time, I was still more interested in how colonialism related to Indonesia, than how it related to Australia. I found Australian monarchists, royalists, totally contemptible and was aware of the robbing of First Nations’ peoples land in the name of founding this country, but, this issue was still something other to me. I knew there was some kind of protest happening nearby (in the King’s Domain, it turned out), but I was a long way from becoming emotionally or intellectually involved. It was other peoples’ business, I thought – not my priority. I got more stirred up by ‘injustices’ in Indonesia than those which I have benefitted from. My strongest memory of that day was how enjoyable it was: perfect weather, a walkable city, excellent sporting facilities, and the best quality table tennis I had seen live. The sport-watching was probably enhanced by the fact that I wasn’t involved in a partisan way: watching players from whichever country; player whose names I had never heard of before and would never see again. This was a far cry from the angst of watching one’s own footy team play.

Still Doing It?!

The 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast forces another discussion about Australian history, culture, politics. It is the choice of Australian governments to maintain the nation’s position with the Commonwealth, and it is the choice of state governments to commit huge funds in hosting the games. A more progressive polity would have extricated itself from this situation. Australian society is smug and content enough though to just let the show go on as normal. Beer and skittles all the way. There is barely time to draw breath in between sporting seasons and events. Outrage and embarrassment comes from cheating cricketers rather than from dehumanising refugees. The current prime minister, a former leader of the republican movement, has abdicated from the role of actively seeking to separate this nation from its colonial links. The Commonwealth Games, held in the holiday city of the Gold Coast, too is far from the centres of Aboriginal activism in Sydney and Melbourne. Probably too the Games would be far more contentious in Perth; where Australia Day celebrations are increasingly rejected. The 2018 Games have a ‘Reconciliation Action Plan’ and a neatly packaged video on what ‘reconciliation’ means. Indigenous businesses have become partners in the Games. Activists from throughout Australia, though, will come to the Games to protest.

The Gold Coast organising committee is smart enough to present an image of being inclusive and pro-Reconciliation. Yet, as the Australian Football League has seen, these comforting messages of ‘feel-good’ Reconciliation are insufficient. The AFL, for example, made the mistake of aligning itself with the ‘Recognition’ movement which was resolutely rejected by Indigenous leaders at the Uluru summit through their Uluru Statement from the Heart. A treaty is what is needed; not platitudes of ‘recognition’. Sport has long-been a site for contesting Indigeneity and protesting against discrimination. Yet somehow, I’m not expecting or even hoping for a Nicky Winmar or Adam Goodes moment at these upcoming Games. These games are about the re-positioning and advertising of the Gold Coast as an attractive city, beyond its touristic image. The goal posts have shifted.

Commonwealth Complicity:

I am already fearing that I will end up watching some of the Games. As a runner, I feel I’ll be at least tempted to watch the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon events. The hoopla around the Games is cringe-worthy and reveals some of the worst aspects of Australian sporting culture (of which there are many). The Games will show that Australian sports fans love little more than seeing their team or athlete smash other competitors.  Never mind if the opposition doesn’t have half of the resources or interest. The Commonwealth Games reveals Australia’s pleasure in being complicit in the problems of colonialism and the nation’s ongoing refusal to face our history head-on. While hosting such Games and jumping up and down shouting the World’s Worst Sport’s Chant (oi oi oi) us spectators too are complicit in perpetuating an ongoing colonialist attitude and practice.

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Photo Source: Here.

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