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Soup of This Day #21: Smiles, Hoops and The Greatest Run I Ever Did See

June 23, 2011

Skirmish near Creen Creek
An unequal contest between police and Indigenous Australians near Creen Creek in Queensland, 1876. The contests were almost always unequal – Image: Ebenezer and David Syme, 1876. Ebenezer and David Syme are not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

When I was in High School at Beverley in Western Australia’s Wheatbelt there was a kid in Year 9 (About 14 years old) who didn’t get to go on the week-long work experience program. This meant that he, let’s call him Fred, got to stay at school for a week by himself. Not a great deal of fun, particularly at lunchtime or morning recess, out in the yard surrounded by Year 10s and Years 1 to 8.

He mostly hid in the library and one day after eating alone he was on his way there when a loose basketball rolled his way. One of the Year 10s, who we’ll call Nathan, was shooting hoops by himself, putting up jumpers from just inside the arc. He was pretty good, had some height and was athletic, didn’t miss much either. He was going places, sport had made him a popular guy and an easy nature had kept people liking him beyond all that.

Anyway he missed this once, the ball dropping short and rimming out and bouncing out to Fred. Fred picked the ball up and without even thinking about it took a shot. If he had thought he would have just passed it back, maybe recognized he was out of his league. See, Fred played basketball only casually and was ok without being anywhere near the level of Nathan. Which was obvious because in his haste he missed, the ball bouncing off the backboard and back to bitumen. Nathan didn’t miss a beat; He loped forward, gathered the ball, laying it up for 2 off the boards. He then caught the rebound and fired it out to Fred. Who paused, surprised, and then took the shot. It missed again and Nathan waved Fred in for the lay up. Which he made, before firing the ball to Nathan.

This was how the next half hour passed. Shoot, lay up, pass, wait for the other guy, repeat. No words were exchanged. No advice, criticism, complaint or gratitude. Just basketball. It didn’t matter that Nathan was supremely gifted, bagging his shots most times, while Fred was workmanlike, halving his efforts. They just went through the routine, shoot, lay-up, wait for the other guy, repeat.

About the same time, 1989, but on the other side of Australia a teenager, maybe a year older than Nathan, was into a sport of a different nature. She, we’ll call her Catherine, was a runner and a very good one at that. She had run 11.67s for the 100m and her coach was contemplating entering her into the Commonwealth Games team for Auckland the next year. He did, with her making the team and winning a gold medal at the age of just 16 as part of the 4x100m relay team. Catherine was gifted and 2 years later, in 1992, she made her first Olympics, making it to the 2nd round of her pet event, the 400m. In 1994 she won individual gold in the 200m and 400m, courting controversy after the latter when she draped herself in a flag that wasn’t the official Australian one for her victory lap. Her brush with officialdom didn’t phase her and didn’t dim her light in the eyes of the Australian public. Nor did it slow her down, for in 1995 she finished 4th at the Worlds and then in 1996 she took silver in the 400m at the Atlanta Olympics.

By now she carried more than just her own hopes and dreams – She was carrying her nation with her. Didn’t seem to matter. After a year off due to injury in 1998 she won the 400m at the Worlds in 1999 before heading into that event at her home Olympics in Sydney as favourite. The pressure would have been immense. The smile that generally blew away press and fans alike was replaced by a look of worried concentration, brow furrowed and doubt seemingly writ large. At the time of the big race, early evening, 25th September 2000, pretty much all of Australia stopped to watch or listen. And pretty much all the country held it’s breath and hoped for a win.

The gun went and Catherine, let’s call her Cathy for short, had a decent start. She kept a good pace early and after the final turn accelerated clear. She worked out to a decent margin in the straight and ran away for the victory. After the race she quietly dropped to the ground, seemingly more wrapped up in relief than glory. A short time later, when it had sunk in, she did a lap of honour, draping herself in the Australian flag and the same flag that had got her into trouble 6 years previous. This time there was little fuss over the 2nd flag. The press ran more than a few side-bars about it but for the most part everyone else just revelled in the victory. I don’t think I’ve heard the national anthem sung with that much pride as it was in that medal ceremony. I think a lot of Australians would rank it as the greatest moment in sport in our country.

The runner is Cathy Freeman, while Nathan Mourish, the lunchtime basketballer, is nowhere near as well known but the two have something in common. They are both Aboriginal, Indigenous Australians (The term Indigenous Australians generally refers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders), the people who solely inhabited this island before European settlement.

If ever there was a subject to make Australians look at their feet and shrug while mumbling useless platitudes it’s how we’ve treated the people who got here 1st. And when we say 1st we mean by a long margin. Evidence exists to show Aboriginal inhabitants of this island some 40,000 years ago.

I’ll let that sink in a bit, because it’s a big number.

40000 years, while white fellas, Anglo Saxon folk, arrived a little over 200 years ago to colonise the place. Indigenous Australians, 99.5%, white fellas, 0.5%. Back then there were up to 3/4 of a million indigenous Australians, living a largely nomadic life, in touch with their country in a way we couldn’t hope to emulate or understand.

So we destroyed it for them. Bigtime.

Actually that’s a nice, easy way of describing it but that’s because words aren’t nearly enough to describe how badly European Australians treated Indigenous Australians. I’ll give it a go anyway:

We introduced diseases and firearms, killing them off indirectly via smallpox and measles, and directly via murder and massacres. By 1900 there were less than 100,000 of them left. We stripped them of humanity and autonomy, using them as slaves and denying them the right to vote or to participate in mainstream society – It took until 1962 before they had the right to vote, another 5 years after that until a referendum was passed such that Indigenous Australians were recognized as equals in the Census. We gave them alchohol, drugs and petrol to sniff and then got surprised when crime rates went up. We did something so abhorrent it is hard to comprehend: For a little over 100 years we forcibly took Indigenous babies and kids from their mothers and tried to rear them as ‘civilised’ white folk, a practice that continued into the 1970’s and involved an estimated 100,000 children, The Stolen Generations. The stain of all of these shameful injustices in Australia’s history is immense and it’s effects are felt by the just over 500,000 Indigenous Australians living today…

In 2009 the life expectancy for an Indigenous man was 11.5 years less than for a non-Indigenous man. For an Indigenous woman it was 9.7 years less than a non-Indigenous woman. The rate of imprisonment for Indigenous people is 14 times that of non-Indigenous people. Only 39% of Indigenous youth make it through to the end of Year 12 in school. That rate is 75% for non-Indigenous youth. And when they are done in school an Indigenous household is likely to experience an income that is only 60% of a non-Indigenous one. This is all without mentioning the rates of substance abuse, suicide, unemployment, mental health and violence. All of these things are much higher for Indigenous people.

So Australians in general shrug and mumble and look at the ground because the easy answer is that we don’t know how to fix a wrong of such magnitude that we stuffed up all that 40,000 years of culture can nurture. Money alone isn’t the solution, there really isn’t enough that we could just throw at this. The true answer probably lies somewhere in a mixture of education, employment and representation. Fortunately there are a lot of good Indigenous people who have hope and are working to get things right and there are more than a few who are exemplars from the sporting world. The recently departed Lionel Rose won a world boxing crown, Evonne Goolagong won 14 Grand Slams in tennis, including 2 Wimbledon singles trophies and 4 Australian Opens. The AFL too has Indigenous Brownlow medal winners (Gavin Wanganeen and Adam Goodes (2)) and would be a shadow of the league it is now if we stripped out the Indigenous players who light it up each round. Cathy Freeman is yet another. She retired in 2003 as a reigning Olympic champion and as well as lending her name and drive to a foundation aimed at helping Indigenous youth, is now an ambassador for the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation.

I wrote this post for 2 reasons. The first is that when I said many Australians consider Cathy Freeman’s 400m run in the Sydney Olympics to be Australia’s greatest sporting moment I was including me. It is also the greatest run I have ever seen, surpassing for me Usain Bolt’s jaw-dropping efforts in Beijing, mostly because Cathy did it with so much context weighting her down. I listened to the race via a radio at work, getting home just in time to catch replays and the medal ceremony on tv. I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder to have my country be represented by a sportsperson. And yeah, her smile is that good.

The second reason is that I wanted to mention Nathan Mourish. He went on to play football for the Perth Demons (86 games) and Peel Thunder (25 games), both in the Western Australian Football League. The Fremantle Dockers selected him in the 1994 AFL Draft as part of their inaugural squad. He made the senior list but was never picked for a game and thereafter dropped mostly out of the spotlight. Not sure what he’s doing now, can find records of him playing in the Goldfields, east of Perth, up till 2005 only. One thing I’m pretty sure about is that he won’t remember playing hoops with a Year 9 kid at lunchtime in 1989.

Either way I just wanted to say thanks for playing ball with me dude.

That was cool of you.

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