Peter Bol: Inside the Legends of Our Australian Legend

Having spent the past three weeks immersed in Olympics, as a researcher for a major broadcast partner, a friend of mine asked what my favourite moment has been thus far.



Easy, I replied. The fact that Australian media has called Nagmeldin ‘Peter’ Bol ‘Australian’, rather than ‘Sudanese’.



In the lead up to the 27 year old’s momentous 800m final, journalists chased every potential angle to the story of ambition and application. There are accounts of Bol’s migration to Toowoomba via Egypt, recounts of his memories fleeing conflict as a young child, narratives of settling in a new country and eventually finding his feet on the track.



But unlike the other stories of many other Sudanese-Australians, this time we’re putting Bol’s Australian identity first.



Is it because he wears a green and gold uniform? Because he speaks with an Australian accent? Because his story of ‘courage’ and ‘enthusiasm’ reflects Australia’s favourite narrative of the hard-working immigrant or athlete who adopts ‘Australian’ values to achieve ultimate success?



Perhaps these articles embody another one of Australia’s favourite media narratives: being quick to celebrate the achievements of ‘Australians’, but the first to admonish the activities of ‘Sudanese’. We choose when to be proud of ‘our’ Aussie heroes, but the first to distance ourselves from ‘them’ when things start going wrong.



As noted in academic literature globally (Ferrucci and Tandoc 2017, Billings 2010, Bigler and Jeffries 2008), broadcasters typically display a fairly narrow lexicon when describing Black athletes, especially in contrast to their white counterparts. Rohan Browning is ‘confident and charismatic’, whilst Peter Bol ‘has guts’. Taliqua Clancy possesses ‘athletic capabilities’ and ‘a competitive streak and stubbornness’, whilst Rio teammate Louise Bawden was a ‘great example (of) commitment and hard work’. Continue putting athletes side by side, and it quickly becomes apparent that black athletes are most frequently praised for their innate physical talents, whilst white athletes are celebrated for their trained behaviours and social and emotional attributes. Further linguistic complexities exist when considering athletes who cannot be classified neatly upon a narrow binary.



It should go without saying that there is an obvious inability for Olympic success to occur in the absence of all aforementioned attributes. Black athletes would not have competed in Tokyo if not sedulous and determined, just as white athletes would not have booked their Tokyo ticket if not both physically and neurologically primed for their respective events.



This fact alone contains little resonance until it is applied to the society in which it reverberates. The after-effects of such linguistic treatment are only beginning to be examined by researchers, however in the ashes of Tokyo’s Olympic flame, there are two broader lessons which we can draw from the journalistic accounts of Bol’s story.



Firstly, Australia must be encouraged to move past the point of accepting Sudanese people, and immigrants more broadly, only because they have done remarkable things for this country. It is incongruent to believe that all Australians deserve a ‘fair go’ whilst holding acceptance and achievement to be mutually exclusive. When Peter Bol struggled to find a willing landlord throughout the ‘African Gangs’ saga, Bill Shorten — Bol’s ‘running mate’ as described by The Australian — was able to step in and help Bol secure a four-bedroom house in Niddrie. A photo-perfect podium finish for some, but a Hillary Step away from fairness for all.



Secondly, a question raised off the back of Nyadol Nyuon’s superb exploration of Bol’s win in The Australian earlier this month: at what point does the media’s fascination with ethnicity become less of a story than the cultivated attributes which allows the athlete to succeed in the first place? Take the example listed above. How many other athletes’ living arrangements, including the size and location of their residence, plus the status of their previous rental applications, have been analysed by media commentators, this author included? Peter Bol shoulders the weight of Australian insidiousness yet again. Multiculturalism is something to be celebrated and acknowledged absolutely, but at what point does it shift from being part of, to the entirety of, an athlete’s point of difference? Perhaps there is a broader point to made here about the way in which we tell stories, both within Australia’s sports media coverage and in society more broadly.



Regardless of philosophical musings, it is clear that the attention and love afforded to Bol from Australian media continues to have a positive effect on Bol’s respective communities. Stories highlighting the ability of humans, especially those from marginalised communities, are always necessary; so too are those which celebrate human connection, irrespective of political position, power or status. Understanding how we demonstrate such love, well intentioned or otherwise, requires reflexivity which is perhaps most easily demonstrated on a cellular level. And as with many things, I like to believe, is best explored within the arena of sports.



So in moments of Olympic glory, and equally in moments of despair, let us describe these Olympians and their communities with a variety of adjectives.



Diligent. Strong. Impassioned. Complex. 



And Australian. Both this week, next week, and all the weeks after that.





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About Hannah Kuhar

Netballer working in banking. Definitely unbiased Hawthorn supporter. Passionate about socio-emotional vulnerabilities and the behaviours of high performing teams. IG: Hannah Kuhar


  1. Fantastic Hannah, a worthy topic and you’ve approached it really well.

    I was struck by Peter’s immediate comments post-run when the interviewer asked him (my paraphrasing) “How much it meant for him to be a role model for the Sudanese Community” and a clearly spent Peter had the presence of mind to mildly correct the journo by saying how proud he was to be a role model for all Australians.

    We contain multitudes and Peter is well aware of his.

  2. Chris Bracher says

    Hannah this piece reflected my own un-shared musings about the topic. The double-standards that we apply dependant upon athletic prowess or the “Australian-ness” of the accent were starkly illustrated for me.
    However, Bol’s achievement as a fulcrum for a new supportive and understanding lens is potentially very powerful. May green and gold be the only colour that we see when next he steps onto the world stage.
    Thanks for taking the time to record your thoughts.

  3. Kasey Symons says

    Brilliantly written Hannah! This is an excellent piece and I am thrilled to be reading words by you! Looking forward to reading more you superstar!

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