Gold Medals, Iron Fist

Olympic Protesters Face a World-Class Crackdown

You've got to keep the buggers under control.
—Spokesman for the New South Wales director of public prosecutions

The Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, better known Down Under by its ubiquitous acronym, SOCOG, has prepared a special treat for visitors to this week's Olympic ceremonies in Sydney. The greeting party will include Black Hawk helicopters, New South Wales state police, and tens of thousands of private security guards and volunteers with powers to search and detain people. Floating just offshore will be U.S. warships. And for the grand finale, federal troops with shoot-to-kill orders could be waiting in the wings.

"I suspect there will be violence. I think there may even be fatalities."
illustration by Max Grafe
"I suspect there will be violence. I think there may even be fatalities."

Of course, these aren't just any visitors. Scheduled to arrive at 10 a.m. on September 15 (8 p.m. of the 14th, New York time) are the marchers of the Peace Walk, an 1800-kilometer trek from Lake Eyre in Australia's central desert to the main Olympic site at Sydney's Homebush Bay to protest Australia's treatment of its Aboriginal inhabitants. By the time of their arrival, their numbers are expected to have swelled to 30,000 Aborigines and their supporters, all on a collision course with the massed apparatus of the Olympic security state.

"I suspect there will be violence," says Olympic scholar Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, who recently returned from four months studying preparations for the Sydney Games. "I think there may even be fatalities."

We treated Aboriginals very, very badly in the past, but to tell children that we're all part of a sort of racist, bigoted history is something that Australians reject.
—Australian prime minister John Howard, 1997

Australia likes to think of itself as a friendly, laid-back sort of place—the Lucky Country, as its unofficial national nickname has it.

Of course, it helps your luck if your skin happens to be white. When the first ships carrying British soldiers and convicts arrived in 1788 at Port Jackson, not far from where the huge Olympic beach volleyball stadium has been erected on Sydney's Bondi Beach, the continent had been continuously occupied for tens of thousands of years. Today there are about as many Aborigines in Australia as there were in precolonial times, but they've been pushed off the best land and denied basic rights. (Aborigines were not permitted to vote in Australia until 1962.) Aborigines are reduced to a second-class status that combines crushing poverty and unemployment, rampant drug use, lowered life expectancy, and soaring rates of imprisonment—up to 20 times higher than for white Australians.

"The social justice issues for Aboriginal people in this country are getting worse and worse," says Ray Jackson, an activist with the Indigenous Social Justice Association and member of Sydney's Anti-Olympic Alliance. "Deaths in custody are rising. Children are still dying at a very young age—the life expectancy for Aborigines is still 20 to 25 years less than for non-Aboriginal people."

Aboriginal leaders say things have only worsened under John Howard, the Liberal Party leader who was elected prime minister in 1996, and who according to Jackson is "the most racist, sexist fuckwit that has ever been put into power." Howard has rolled back land-reform measures and withdrawn from UN human rights protocols for fear of being criticized on Aboriginal policy. Perhaps most gallingly to many, he has refused to acknowledge one of the darkest eras in Australia's white history: the "stolen generation," the innumerable Aboriginal children who were taken from their families by the government between 1910 and the 1970s and given to white parents to be raised as part of a national policy of forced assimilation.

Out of respect for Aboriginal athletes—particularly Cathy Freeman, herself the granddaughter of a "stolen" child and the prohibitive favorite in the 400-meter sprint—march organizers have decided not to disrupt the Games, but rather to use them as a stage to call attention to their demands: power sharing, the right to return to the land that was theirs until the Europeans arrived, and a national apology for the stolen generation. In July, Aboriginal activist Isabell Coe kicked off the actions with a "tent embassy" in Sydney's Victoria Park, a spinoff of the similar encampment she helped found in the national capital of Canberra 28 years ago as a symbol of Aboriginal sovereignty.

"We don't have a problem with the actual running of the Games," says Jackson. "There's not much we can do; we've got the bloody things and they're there. And we want our indigenous athletes to win. All we want is to be able to tell the world media our histories, our stories about the cultural genocide that has been in place for 212 years."

This isn't a charity. We've entered into a business transaction. We will make money. That's what it's all about.
—Hugh McColl, chairman of Atlanta Games sponsor Nations Bank

Other protesters are less reticent in their criticisms of the Games themselves. With some of the world's largest multinationals on board as Olympic sponsors, including Nike, McDonald's, and Coca-Cola, Sydney is expected to be one of the next convergence points for the burgeoning anti-globalization movement that recently rose to prominence in Seattle and Washington, D.C.

"The International Olympic Committee is a multinational corporation in its own right," notes Vince Caughley of the Sydney-based CACTUS (Campaign Against Corporate Tyranny United in Struggle). "One that operates in the interests of the corporate sponsors—its business partners—largely at public expense." In the '90s, the IOC passed new rules requiring that prospective host cities promise to cover any losses incurred by the Olympics, and the Australian state of New South Wales has already spent nearly $3 billion on building and equipping the Sydney Games.

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