In a powerful tribute to the transformative power of sport, Olympic champion Nova Peris has emphasized its role as a great equaliser. Reflecting on her own journey as a young Indigenous girl, Peris revealed that sport provided her with the inspiration to dream when there seemed to be no other avenues available to her.
As the first Indigenous Australian to win Olympic gold in 1996, she shared the poignant story of her mother, who had been led to believe that her future would consist of serving people as a domestic servant.
"She couldn't dream. She didn't know what her future looked like," Peris said.
"She was led to believe that she was going to be a domestic servant for white people for the rest of her life."
Peris candidly admitted that gymnastics was not her forte, but witnessing Comaneci's achievement allowed her to imagine a future beyond the limitations imposed on her family by their circumstances.
"I couldn't do gymnastics for s***. I could do cartwheels in the backyard but what I saw was something that I could dream of," Peris said.
"My mum couldn't dream. My grandparents couldn't dream. They were in the mission. They had no inspiration. They had no hope."
Recalling a newspaper photograph from her childhood, which depicted her as a nine-year-old with five gold medals around her neck and a caption questioning whether she could bring home gold for Australia and the territory, Peris humorously acknowledged the pressure placed on a young child. Nevertheless, she stressed the significance of being able to dream, asserting that sport grants inspiration and hope, regardless of one's background, while promoting equality, human dignity, and the opportunity to shine.
"That's no pressure on the nine-year-old kid growing up in the Northern Territory," she laughed.
"But my point was, I could dream.
"That's what sport does. It gives inspiration. It gives us hope. It's a level playing field, irrespective of your background.
"It gives us equality, human dignity and then allows us to shine."
During Reconciliation Week, which commemorates the 1967 referendum acknowledging Aboriginal people as part of the population and the Mabo decision recognizing their pre-settlement presence in Australia, Peris emphasized the importance of understanding history and the role that sport plays in educating people. She stated that true reconciliation requires awareness of the uncomfortable truths surrounding Indigenous Australians' experiences, beyond the realms of coaching, athletes, and sporting pathways. According to Peris, it is vital that everyone be well-informed about history before moving forward, particularly in the context of the 2032 Olympics.
"People need to know what they're reconciling over and sadly it's an uncomfortable truth," Peris said.
"It's not just coaches, athletes and athlete pathways. We can't go forward having 2032 Olympics without everyone knowing the history."
Peris also highlighted the platform that sports provide for conversations and the ability to bring people together. She spoke of the mental and physical pressures, as well as the racism faced by Indigenous Australians when discussing their history and issues such as the voice to parliament. The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) has responded to these challenges by launching its second reconciliation action plan, called 'Innovate.' With a focus on effecting meaningful change for Indigenous communities through sport, the AOC has invited all Australians to join them on this journey. AOC President Ian Chesterman, referring to the impact of Indigenous athletes' success, described it as a tangible and powerful message. Patrick Johnson, Olympic athlete and Chair of the AOC's Indigenous Advisory Committee, emphasized the need for representation at all levels of the organization as the next step towards reconciliation. The AOC has also taken a stance in support of the 'yes' vote in the upcoming voice referendum, further demonstrating its commitment to Indigenous empowerment and inclusion.
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Photo Courtesy Yahoo! Sport Australia
Courtesy Yahoo! Sport Australia