Gold Medals, Iron Fist


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.

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.

The economic and social costs of the Olympics are prompting a global anti-Olympic movement, says Lenskyj, author of the new book Inside the Olympic Industry. A sports sociologist at the University of Toronto and board member of Bread Not Circuses, a social justice group formed in 1989 to fight Toronto’s Olympic bid, Lenskyj describes how local opposition to the Games has grown since Denver became the only city to reject an IOC offer to host the Olympics in 1972.

Development, of course, is why city officials crave the Olympics in the first place. But as Jan Borowy of Bread Not Circuses notes, “The Olympic budget doesn’t cover the cost of building the housing, so it’s public money anyway.” And with Olympic housing starts have come Olympic gentrification: Widespread rent gouging in anticipation of the influx of Olympic employees and tourists has left 35,000 Sydneysiders homeless, four times as many as before Sydney was granted the Games in 1993.

This, explains Lenskyj, who spent four months in Sydney earlier this year as a visiting scholar, is “the blueprint for an Olympic host city: Have few if any protections for tenants and low-income people, so that landlords can evict tenants, slap a coat of paint on the premises, and rent it at three or four times the previous rent. That has happened many, many times: Barcelona, Seoul, Calgary, Atlanta, and now in Sydney.”

Sydney’s Aboriginal, tenant, and student activists in Sydney’s Anti-Olympics Alliance will be augmented by thousands more who are expected to bus up the coast following this past Monday’s “S11” protests at the World Economic Forum in Melbourne, a gathering of multinational CEOs dubbed the “Business Olympics.” The timing of the two events is no coincidence, insists CACTUS’s Caughley: Many multinational Olympic sponsors will kill two birds with one intercontinental airfare on the Melbourne-Sydney jaunt.

Environmental protests are expected as well. Greenpeace, which initially endorsed the “Green Games” PR strategy of SOCOG, recently downgraded its rating of the Games’ environmental efforts to “bronze,” citing the continued presence of dioxin and other carcinogens on the former industrial site of Homebush Bay. Greenpeace activists have since created a giant “crop circle” beneath the Sydney airport flight path, with an arrow pointing toward Homebush and the word TOXIC.

The Opening Ceremony is like a bold statement of intent. . . . While intended primarily as entertainment, the perfectly choreographed segments often give heroes their due or draw attention to a social issue. The Hollywood-style glamour cannot mask the underlying theme of tolerance and respect.
—Sydney Olympics Web site

All of these diverse protest groups are scheduled to arrive in Sydney on the 15th, with a series of actions around the city to coincide with that evening’s Opening Ceremonies. In addition to what’s become the routine pepper-spray-and-baton police greeting, what’s worrying activists and legal observers is the unprecedented restrictions on civil liberties passed by the government during the run-up to the Games. Police and private security officers have been authorized to issue “move on” orders to anyone within three kilometers of the scattered Olympic sites—a zone that covers much of Sydney—for a list of offenses that includes handing out literature, using a camera, using “insulting” language, or otherwise causing an “annoyance or inconvenience.” (SOCOG had threatened to ban the Aboriginal flag as well, but backed down.) Violators will be subject to arrest and fines of up to $2200, and can be banned from the Olympic grounds for life. And then there is the Defence Legislation Amendment (Aid to Civilian Authorities) Bill, pending in the Australian parliament, which would allow the use of the military where “domestic violence” is occurring or likely to occur—with the power for warrantless search and seizure and to shoot to kill.

“Sydney is following exactly in Atlanta’s footsteps,” says Lenskyj. “The government passes draconian measures to suspend human rights and civil liberties and the right to peaceful assembly for the duration of the Games.”

Nonetheless, the Peace Walk proceeds, and the protesters are preparing for the Opening Ceremonies on Friday. “At 10 o’clock that morning, there’s going to be a rally at the tent embassy site, though they are attempting everything possible to lock us out,” says Jackson, the indigenous leader.

“We continue to stress that our actions will be peaceful. We do not want any physical force used by us or against us. But SOCOG has said no way, no one will cross over the Homebush line. So there will be violence. The violence will not be perpetrated by us. But we certainly hold the right to defend ourselves. And how that pans out, we don’t know.”

Archive Highlights