Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Darkness and a Little Light: 'Race' and Sport in Australia

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Darkness and a Little Light: 'Race' and Sport in Australia

Article excerpt

Abstract: Despite "the wonderful and chaotic universe of clashing colors, temperaments and emotions, of brave deeds against odds seemingly insuperable', sport is mixed with 'mean and shameful acts of pure skullduggery', villainy, cowardice, depravity, rapaciousness and malice. Thus wrote celebrated American novelist Paul Gallico on the eve of the Second World War (Gallico 1938 [1988]:9-10). An acute enough observation about society in general, his farewell to sports writing also captures the 'clashing colors' in Australian sport. In this 'land of the fair go, we look at the malice of racism in the arenas where, as custom might have it, one would least want or expect to find it. The history of the connection between sport, race and society--the long past, the recent past and the social present--is commonly dark and ugly but some light and decency are just becoming visible.

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Sport is neither sacred nor isolated from society at large. Sport, race and ethnicity have long been entwined, often at very close quarters. 'Mixed' boxing is but one example. Pierce Egan, 'the Plutarch of the Prize Ring', wrote most admiringly of Tom Molineaux, 'the Black Ajax', a former American slave who fought in Britain. 'The Black', he wrote, 'naturally had a taste for gaiety--a strong passion for dress--amorously inclined, and full of gallantry, it is not surprising that the charms of the softer sex should warmly interest the attention of the lusty Moor' (Egan 1812 [1976]:102-3). At the time of his two fights against Tom Cribb near London in 1810 and again in 1811, 'he was as famous in England as Napoleon' (Fraser 1997:1). Almost a century later, on 26 December 1908, the 'Doomsday' fight for the world heavyweight championship between American Jack Johnson and the much smaller and celebrated white Canadian Tommy Burns took place at Rushcutters Bay in Sydney. Like Molineaux, Johnson had a predilection for white women, something that was barely acceptable in England but quite intolerable in American and Australian society at that time. This was the first time that a black man had been able to take on a white man for an official pugilistic title. In doing so, Johnson, the 'Bad Nigger', continentally cursed and rabidly reviled by the Australian public and fight fans, effectively helped end the colour bar in American boxing, though not the discriminatory attitudes that underpinned this sport and sport in general. In part as a centenary commemoration of the fight that was meant to sustain and maintain white supremacy, the Sport, Race and Ethnicity Conference, subtitled 'Building a global understanding', was held in Sydney in November-December 2008.

The Sport, Race and Ethnicity Conference

This conference was hosted by the School of Leisure, Sport and Tourism, University of Technology Sydney, in partnership with the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. The forum enabled debate and discussion in an emerging, global field of research. In 'The Johnson-Burns 100th Anniversary Forum', Canberra's David Headon explained the significance of this prize fight in white Australia, while American scholar Randy Roberts dealt with the legacy of the emphatic Johnson victory for 'Jim Crow' America. Colin Tatz's plenary address examined the often elusive concepts of race, ethnicity, identity and Aboriginality in sport and society, the expanded paper of which appears in this journal. John Hoberman (University of Texas at Austin)--whose compelling 1997 publication Darwin's Athletes: How sport has damaged black America and preserved the myth of race established his position as an intellectual luminary in global debates about sport and race--examined theories of 'black athletic aptitude' in the context of the evolving area of medical genetics, whether such 'scientific' assumptions of 'racial' capability are actually convincing, and the likely nature of 'race politics' in light of the science-race discourses on sport. …

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