On the Olympics & Being Indigenous

by Guest Contributor Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, originally published at Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

I’m not going to lie. I’m not a big fan of the Olympics and in fact every four years I think I hate them more, for all of the obvious reasons. Vancouver 2012 I disliked the most because when watching the opening ceremonies with my then eight year old insomniac, in what must have been the middle of the night, he looked at me and said “When is Team Anishinaabeg going to be entering the stadium? Probably before Team Haudenosaunee, right, because Anishinaabeg begins with A?” As all Native parents know, the colonialism talk makes the sex talk look a lot like a platter of cupcakes with a chaser of ice cream cones.

This year, I’ve been lucky and I’ve mostly been able to ignore the whole conspicuous spectacle, except that during the opening ceremonies I had to unfollow Billy Bragg on Twitter because he was so enamored with Danny Boyle’s lefty take on the ceremony, that he failed to notice Boyle skipping over the four hundred years of colonialism, genocide and occupation England’s heaped on Indigenous nations globally. And yes, this year my entire Olympic experience is mitigated through my Twitter feed which is made up almost exclusively of Indigenous artists, academics and writers. Which means in addition to the Billy Bragg incident, the only Olympic related news I’ve heard is confined to the two racist athletes expelled from the games, the four Indigenous athletes from North America including Anishinaabekwe Mary Spence and today, Damien Hooper.

Damien Hooper was colonized by jolly old England via Australia, so he is at the Olympics representing Australia, and in his words “I am not just representing my country but my people as well”. His crime? He wore a shirt with an “Aboriginal flag” on it after his boxing match today.

The flag in question was designed by artist Harold Thomson and it was originally a symbol of the Indigenous land rights movement in Australia. In 1995, the Australian government made it legally and politically one of the “Flags of Australia”.

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter states: “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in the Olympic areas”, meaning Hooper has been told he cannot wear his shirt again and he must apology to Chef de Mission for the Australian team.

Here is the part that I need to say out loud even though it’s neither new or profound: every aspect of the Olympics is political – who is there, who is not there, where they are held, where they are not held, the sports that are involved, the sports that are not involved, the sports women are allowed to compete in and those we are not, the basic human rights of transgender athletes, whose history is told and celebrated and whose is silenced, the privileging of the competition of able bodied athletes and the fact that the social costs of the games fall squarely on the backs of the economically poor.

The Olympics are political and they reflect the politics of the both the ruling nation-states of the world and corporations. You can wear a shirt with Canada on it. You can wear shoes with Adidas on them. That’s fine, because it’s “not political”. Unless of course you’re Indigenous and these corporations and nation states are causing never-ending harm, destruction and trauma to your land and your people.

The idea that there is no place for political protest at the Olympics is also a wild sanitization of the games given that there has been dissent and protest at the games as long as the modern games have been held. Remember in 2000 when Cathy Freeman, who is also Indigenous and from the Australian team, carried the same “Aboriginal flag” around the track in her victory lap?

Hooper says he is very proud of what he did, and he should be proud. He showed Indigenous Peoples all over the world that he gets it – that settler states occupy our lands, they ignore our traditional governments, they try and beat us down, but they cannot take away our pride in being Indigenous. He showed us he remembered his family, his community, and his nation, above all else. He took a risk in the biggest sporting event of his life to tell those Old Ones that he remembered. To tell me, he remembered.

The only person in this non-fiasco fiasco that is owed an apology is Damien Hooper. To compete in the Olympics you shouldn’t have to deny your nationality, you shouldn’t have to erase your Indigeneity, and you should never be threatened or made to apologize for being who you are.

I think the Olympics and I are probably done for 2012 but I’ll tell you that I am looking very forward to the day the Iroquois Nationals use their passports to travel to the Olympics to kick everyone’s lacrosse ass, and I mean both the men’s team and the women’s team. And I’m also looking very forward to the day when Team Anishinaabeg enters the stadium at the Opening Ceremonies.

  • happyappa

    I believe another example is China and Taiwan, and the Olympics won’t recognize Taiwan. Taiwan is not recognized by the UN as separate from China, China makes the Olympics use a different flag for Taiwan, and has them play as Chinese Taipei. I only have a superficial understanding of their relationship, so I am sorry if this is incorrect.

  • happyappa

    Thank you, I was completely unaware of this. And of course, on other news sites, this kind of story will be buried under crap like “Michael Phelps is sooo coool winning gold for 3859823095th time”.

    I am proud of Hooper for standing up for his beliefs.

  • Anonymous

    “Every aspect of the Olympics is political – who is there, who is not
    there, where they are held, where they are not held, the sports that are
    involved, the sports that are not involved, the sports women are
    allowed to compete in and those we are not, the basic human rights of
    transgender athletes, whose history is told and celebrated and whose is
    silenced, the privileging of the competition of able bodied athletes and
    the fact that the social costs of the games fall squarely on the backs
    of the economically poor.”

    YES THAT EXACTLY. Even setting aside the massive amounts of privilege and naivete it takes to insist that the Olympics aren’t political (which, let’s not)…Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968 is one of the greatest moments in sports history. People can talk all they want about sports bringing people together, but they’re also a fantastic platform for profound, overt political statements, and that can’t be ignored.

  • http://www.facebook.com/wenchlette Sara Spilchen

    In 1995, the Aboriginal Flag was appointed an official flag of Australia so why the hell should he apologize for wearing a shirt with it as the main design? We’re not reprimanding any other athletes for wearing official flag paraphenalia!

  • Anonymous

    I have been waiting for Team Haudenosaunee, Ever since 1984 and Alwyn Morris. I was 7. Im now 35 and Im still waiting.

  • Anonymous

    I have been waiting for Team Haudenosaunee, Ever since 1984 and Alwyn Morris. I was 7. Im now 35 and Im still waiting.

  • Aan B

    Article is on point! I missed this moment since I have been watching the Track and field and running. :) I’ve heard, read and seen many complaints about how the Olympics, although fun for visiting tourists and athletes is really an expensive and harassing event for the host city. There is nothing wrong with Damien Hooper wearing the Aboriginal flag after winning a tough challenger. He wanted to show the world and make his family proud at the same time. Which he did with style. Since when is being proud of your hertiage indigenous or otherwise considered uber political and even upsetting to the Olympic Committee?

    Ah it is a threat to the Colonialism talk’s view of the happy, sing song and colorblind world of equality where at the Games everything is fair. That is if you ignore the fact that the Olympic athletes don’t always represent the world. With the exception of South African double amputee runner Oscar Pistorius, there are no disabled athletes competing in the Olympics. There are injured athletes who still compete but being a physically challenged runner or blind (like South Korea’s fantastic archer Oh Jin-hyek who not only broke his own personal record but also won a gold medal for Korea) is still considered anomaly as though athletes who have challenges can’t compete alongside their able bodied peers. There is also the idea that women who are equal in strength to men or have extra muscles are taunted and question by the media and their home countries for somehow being secretly men sending the message to women and girls that female athletes’ bulging muscles or above average strength is still taboo in the sporting world or heaven forbid unladylike. Who said female athletes can’t be muscular?

    And yes there haven’t been in any indigenous nations flag from Canada or the United States raised at the Games. I hope in the future we will see not only the indigenous flags of the Americas but also of other indigenous and unrecognized nations around the world such as the Amazigh (one of many African indigenous people the Tamazigh or Berbers), Romani or Gypsies and Sami of Sweden and Norway. By the way, Palestine’s flag has been flown twice at the opening ceremony and Palestinians are considered to be an indigenous people by a few countries.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lusankya Alison Claire Parker

    Banning someone for wearing an aboriginal shirt because
    “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in the Olympic areas” seems a trifle ridiculous, given that for these Olympics, Saudi Arabia is being forced to allow female competitors. Now, I will be the first to admit that gender equality is a good cause, but it also seems to me that the inclusion of these women is in and of itself a form of political propaganda, and a far greater one than wearing an aboriginal shirt at that.

    Furthermore, if an aboriginal flag is considered “racial propaganda”, then plenty of athletes also engage in “religious propaganda”, but without any censure. Chinese badminton player, Lin Dan has a large, very obvious tattoo of a cross on his shoulder (religious symbol, oh noes), yet he obviously wasn’t forced to cover that up. I somehow suspect that any athletes who could get away with wearing a crucifix around their neck during their event would also be making as much of a statement about their religion as Damien Hooper was about his race.

    It seems to me that something might only count as a “demonstration” or “propaganda” when it makes the organisers feel uncomfortable.