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Providing a voice for First Nations people in sport

For 15 years, Wayne Coolwell worked as a sports journalist and broadcaster on radio and television for the ABC and was well known for his presenting and producing role on the national indigenous news and cultural affairs program “Speaking Out”.

Coolwell then found himself involved with indigenous arts and culture activities as an advocate on government steering committees.

It may seem like these roles are two opposing forces but as Coolwell explained sport and politics do intersect in many ways.

“Sport has always been a part of my life and a huge part of my life growing up,” he said. “When politics came into it was when you ask questions about indigenous involvement in sport, and why aren't there more coaches, why is there racism in sport… all these things mull around in your head for a lot of years.

“I thought we needed a national First Nations voice in this country.”

Then about four years ago there was an indigenous sport summit held at Richmond Football Club, where 80 delegates from around Australia came together to discuss the problems confronting First Nations people in sport.

One of the most important questions would be asked - Do you think we need a national indigenous sports foundation?

The overwhelming response was ‘yes’ and that was how the National Indigenous Sports Foundation (NISF) was born.

“I was looking for there to be a voice around the country which spoke up about things which weren't working for First Nations people,” Coolwell explained.

One of the guiding factors for Coolwell, who is the NISF Chairperson, was when Sydney Swans legend Adam Goodes was booed each time Goodes got near the ball. However, it wasn’t just that moment. It was decades of racism and discrimination First Nations have faced in sports.

Whether it was Nicky Winmar, who lifted his St Kilda jersey and pointed to his skin after being racially abused throughout the match, to athletes who faced discrimination back in the 1930s and 1920s and those that had to overcome legislation like the Aboriginal Protection Act.

“I always felt that if we had a national body, to work with organisations on some sort of cultural endeavour and reconciliation, there would be a different outcome,” Coolwell said.

Over the next five years, Coolwell says work needs to be done to get more First Nations people involved in sport, not just at a high-performance level but at the grassroots.

After the NISF launch in March 2022, have a partnership with Badminton Australia where they’re looking to establish an Indigenous program, and have been in discussions with other national sports organisations on how they can continue their reconciliation journey.

Being able to give First Nations people a voice, wherever they are in Australia will continue to be a driving force for the NISF.

“I always think that the remote and isolated regional areas don't have a voice so it's important that we listen to those people, whether they haven't got funding for human resources to help with people involved with training, coaching or administration and funding for the upgrade to sporting fields,” Coolwell said.

“I think we need to make sure we listen to what's happening out there and take their voices seriously and advocate on their behalf.

“Whether it's in the Pilbara, far north Queensland, Tasmania, the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in South Australia, listening to all those voices is important.

“There's a lot of work to be done but this is a great start and I think it's the start of something special,” he added.

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