'She's Not One of Us': Cathy Freeman and the Place of Aboriginal People in Australian National Culture

Article excerpt

Abstract: The Sydney 2000 Olympic Games generated a national media celebration of Aboriginal 400 metre runner Cathy Freeman. The construction of Freeman as the symbol of national reconciliation was evident in print and on television, the Internet and radio. In contrast to this celebration of Freeman, the letters to the editor sections of 11 major newspapers became sites for competing claims over what constitutes Australian identity and the place of Aboriginal people in national culture. We analyse this under-explored medium of opinion and discuss how the deep feelings evident in these letters, and the often vitriolic responses to them, illustrate some of the enduring racial tensions in Australian society.

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The waiting was over: on 15 September 2000 the secret of who would light the Olympic cauldron on behalf of Australia was revealed. Last in a line of female athletes to receive the Olympic torch was Aboriginal (1) track star Cathy Freeman. The choice of Freeman, by then the unofficial 'face' of the Games, cemented her place as the most visible Australian athlete of the Games. Images of her holding the flame aloft were seen in living rooms, bars and public viewing places around the world. Her selection was applauded by both the international and Australian media as a symbol of national unity and racial reconciliation.

The positive media response to Freeman and the use of Aboriginal imagery has been identified in several studies (Bruce and Hallinan 2001; Elder et al. 2006; Knight et al. 2007; Wensing and Bruce 2003). (2) These media discourses showed how Aboriginal people might be imagined as part of the nation. As Bruce and Hallinan (2001:258) contend, 'in debates over the future of the nation, the main issue has been ... the extent to which Australia's identity will be anchored in an historically exclusive, narrow, hierarchical and white dominant vision, or one that is inclusive, multicultural, democratic and progressively hybridized'.

Over time, particular visions of identity tend to emerge as dominant, even though there are many possible ways that Australia could be imagined (Turner 1994; White 1981). In both sports and mainstream media, these understandings often emphasise or over-emphasise shared visions and memories, and ignore or deflect divisions such as race, class and gender (Spencer and Wollman 2002; Turner 1994). Recent research suggests that people's understandings of Australian identity tend to be grounded in personal experience and in 'real individuals, real places and real community groups', rather than in abstract ideals of political discourse (Phillips and Smith 2000:220). This process can be seen in the ways that sports teams and stars--such as Freeman--become the focus of public discussion.

Sport and national identity

Sport is an important element of how many societies define themselves. Winning in sport is even more central: it becomes the measure of Australia's 'standing in the international community' (Adair and Vamplew 1997:42; Booth and Tatz 2000). Sport is widely understood as 'a cultural apparatus that can be speedily and regularly mobilized in the symbolic reconstruction of the nation' (Rowe 1995:136); the media are integral to maintaining an imagined community and constructing a collective national identity (Bairner 2001; Billig 1995).

In Australia, Gardiner (2003:235-8) argues, 'sport, race, and racism have been intimately, and at times explosively, bound and intertwined', and the decade before the 2000 Games 'was primed for discursive collision and contestation'. In concert with broader cultural discussions about Australian history, the issue of racism was debated as Aboriginal athletes, including Freeman, began to speak out about their on- and off-field experiences (Hallinan et al. 1999). Several episodes of racial taunting spurred the Australian Football League to institute a code of conduct in 1995 (Gardiner 1997; Klugman and Osmond in this journal). …