Commonwealth Games as Anachronism and City Branding

Every day, thousands of runners run around The Tan track at the perimeter of Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens. Many runners probably do not realise they pass a boulder inscribed with the Aboriginal flag and a statement about the remains buried beneath. This site of recreation and picnicking at the King’s Domain, however, was the centre of protests held throughout the 2006 Commonwealth Games. The 60-day long camp was known as ‘Camp Sovereignty’, and its organisers, Robbie Thorpe and Gary Foley amongst them, popularised the term ‘Stolen Wealth’ to refer to the Games. On the eve of the latest instalment of the Games, Thorpe remembers the protests as an opportunity to ‘expose the lies and bigotry of the Australian nation’. Activists at the upcoming games intend to drop ‘truth bombs’. Leading up to the 2006 Games, the mainstream media was largely dismissive of ‘Aboriginal agitators’ (Herald Sun, May 14th, 2005, p.9), yet, as this year’s Invasion Day protests have shown such interests are hardly peripheral or limited to an extreme minority.

 

The staging of mega-sporting events is a strategy for fostering an imagined community and for emphasising shared values and history. Indonesia’s holding of the upcoming Asian Games is a source of much pride and opportunity to re-brand its capital city Jakarta and the regional city of Palembang. The founding of the Commonwealth Games (originally the British Empire Games) was an effort ‘to maintain imperial prestige and cement cultural bonds’ (Liston and Maguire 2016). That the Commonwealth Games remain relevant in Australian political and sporting culture, suggests that holding the games have a purpose other than just endorsing ‘imperial prestige’. The holding of mega-sporting events present an opportunity for city-re-branding and to act as a ‘signalling impulse’ which are directed at both local and global audiences (Black 2007). The Gold Coast exemplifies our imagined ideals and way of life, and apparently: “the beach is the last, perhaps the only truly democratic space we have where everyone exists together – interdependent, connected yet highly individual”. The Cronulla Riots of 2005 are clearly ancient history.

 

The lead up to the 2006 Games was marked by cynicism and scepticism that holding such an event would be worth the trouble. The Games, albeit on a smaller scale than Sydney’s feel-good fuelled Olympics, however, were another instalment of the Victorian government’s efforts at establishing the city as the sports capital of the world – complemented by a thriving cultural life. Melbourne’s long-term plan as an ‘event city’, however, has added to a ‘growing economic gap between the […] gentrified inner city and the increasingly marginalized outer zones of the metropolis’ (Seamus O’Hanlon, 2009). That there may be ethical, ideological or cultural problems with celebrating being a part of the Commonwealth/Stolen Wealth was hardly a concern for organisers. Indeed, The Age wrote of the concern felt by monarchists who were offended by the planned absence of God Save the Queen at the opening ceremony (1st March 2006, p.10). The thin veneer of Aboriginal authenticity and endorsement was questioned by contributors to papers such as the Koori Mail who revealed the misappropriation of cultural knowledge in the use of the possum skin cloaks at the opening and closing ceremonies (Koori Mail, 1st March 2006, p.8).

 

Australian athletes do not need to leave the country in order to participate in mega-sporting events held in countries with problematic human rights records. The 1982 Games in Brisbane were one such occasion where activists were able to highlight the hostile conditions of Queensland and to assert a stronger Aboriginal voice in mainstream Australian politics. The Brisbane protests of 1982 came after the Freedom Ride (1965), protests against the Springbok rugby tour (1971) and the foundation of the Tent Embassy (1972). The Black Protest Committee wrote at the time, “Black Australia has to take the initiative for her own survival. The Brisbane Games provide us with an opportunity to expose the racism of Australia to the rest of the world” (Watson 1982). These issues haven’t been resolved and the current Prime Minister has difficulty in listening to Indigenous leaders.

 

Indigenous interests and politics are given short shrift when many stand to benefit from the pomp and ceremony of an anachronistic, imperialist and self-aggrandising sporting spectacle. The Games are not only this, but also an essential part of the plans of medium-sized cities to position themselves in the global city context. The ‘truth bombs’ of activists protesting against the Commonwealth/Stolen Wealth Games will barely register within the hype of ‘celebration capitalism’ (see: Jules Boykoff, 2013) which sees specific laws passed in order to maintain order and silence dissent. The dubious politics of the Games and the gratuitous fawning over Australia’s place in the ‘Commonwealth’ is only part of the broader scheme of the reasons for hosting the games. The Games reveal Australia’s off-field political indifference, and on-field pleasure in playing the role of flat-track bullies.

 

*An edited version of this article was published on The Conversation, on Tuesday 3rd April. The article can be found here.

 

Comments

  1. Andy- I hear you on all of this. Brilliant. A load of jingoistic nonsense. Some colleagues were talking it up, and I replied saying, “Who do you reckon will take out the men’s shotput?” Silence.

    As a planet, we’ve moved on.

  2. Interesting read Andy. You raise a number of valid points re the challenge of sporting events involving Australia and racism. I’ve included a link here to add to the dialogue.

    https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/victoria-v-springboks-july-3-1971/

    To me ,as much, if not even more disconcerting was the coverage on 7. The primary focus was on Australian competitors to the detriment of all else. For example I watched one of the women’s swimming events on Sunday, where the Canadians quinellaed it, with Emily Seebohm third. The TV coverage only showed Emily Seebohm on the podium receiving her bronze,no coverage of the Canadian pair. This was indicative of much of the coverage.

    Andy would you do a post on the 1982 Commonwealth games? It’s important we remember, and have an awareness of these events.

    Remember, White Australia has a Black History.

    Glen!

  3. Hi Mickey and Glen,
    Many thanks for both of your comments.
    I did watch coverage of the ‘Games’ – but generally with the sound down. I kept thinking (and hoping), ‘these could well be the very last CGs’.
    I have a fair bit of material on the 1982 Commonwealth Games yet not drafted anything yet; will see how I go.
    andy

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