Goodes fight that gripped Australia
The Australian Dream is a brilliant documentary, shown recently on the BBC and available on iPlayer; I commend it to you without reservation.
It is the story of Adam Goodes, an Australian rules football star of Aboriginal descent who became the
Raw deal: Adam Goodes, who is of Aboriginal descent, was booed by AFL crowds after being abused by a 13-year-old fan lightning rod for a national conversation in that country about history, racism, reparation and identity.
Like many sports fans in the UK, perhaps, my knowledge of AFL is limited to: the one with the rugby-type ball, you can bounce it with your hand, you kick it through the posts, looks enjoyably violent to watch, they wear those old-timey singlets, and having a moustache is no barrier to entry.
Goodes, even to the untutored eye, seems to have been exceptional: tremendous ball handling and jumping, nerveless shooting, pace, vast wells of determination. In one cup final, he ruptures his posterior cruciate ligament in the first half, has it strapped at half-time, and wins the cup with a piece of individual brilliance in the last seconds.
On the intangibles front, it would seem he developed from a shy country boy into a leader of his team, the Sydney Swans. He is a two-time winner of the Brownlow Medal for the “best and fairest” player in the league, and looks the sort of good bloke Australia would take to its bosom.
However, in 2014, a supporter of rival side Collingwood called him “an ape” during a match. Goodes pointed her out to security, and she was ejected. It turned out his abuser was a 13-year-old girl.
In the film’s telling, Goodes handled the immediate aftermath with grace and considerable generosity: telling the media he was upset, but “it is not her fault, she is a kid”, and inviting people to consider what societal forces would cause a child to think and say that.
One Eddie McGuire, the president of Collingwood Football Club, apologised right away to Goodes in the dressing room on
behalf of the club, no place in our game, etc … then went on radio a couple of days later suggesting that Goodes might be a useful promotional tie-in for the film King Kong.
Recast as the man who bullied a child, Goodes became a target for fans, who throughout the next season booed his every touch as the story took on a life of its own to turn into a spectacle that gripped the national conversation.
A particular success of the documentary is to unpack all this in a way that is at once local, and on the other hand universal. The film suggests there is something particular to Australia and Australians about this: the idea of the right to a noisy opinion, do not show weakness, hard men never take a backward step, all’s fair in love and sport. It seems every Australian had a view about the booing. Shane Warne, at the time, commented: “I don’t think what they’re doing to Adam Goodes is racist. What the crowds are doing, that’s their prerogative.”
Others felt it very much was racist. Journalist Stan Grant, credited as the writer of the film, said: “People don’t like the angry Aborigine: it reminds us of something in the past we don’t want to be reminded of.”
That past, again perhaps not that well understood in this country, is one of conquest, dispossession, rape, murder and a deliberate attempt to breed indigenous genes out of the pool set in train by Britain pitching up and declaring the land “terra nullius” – nobody’s land, and thus up for grabs. Bad news for a people who had lived there for 65,000 years.
The wretched “it was 200 years ago, get over it” crowd are represented here by the columnist Andrew Bolt, a sort of Australian Katie Hopkins, of whom there is more than enough in this film.
Twice as likely to die before the age of five, twice as likely to be born at low birth weight, living shorter lives, as well as all the discrimination from society and in the eyes of the law familiar to black people globally, the indigenous peoples of that country and their descendants are living the trauma today.
I do not know if it would have been possible to find someone a little less unappealing than Bolt to offer counterpoint to the argument from Goodes and Grant that his booing happened because of that and in that context, but for most reasonable viewers, surely, there is only one team in it.
He pointed out the fan who called him ‘an ape’ and she was ejected. It turned out she was 13 years old