“The Olympic Charter contradicts many indigenous physical activities”

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Down To Earth speaks with Christian Wacker, President of the International Society of Olympic Historians, about Indigenous Peoples at the Olympics

(Left) Tom Longboat, an Iroquois long-distance runner who represented Canada at the turn of the last century. NBA star Patty Mills (right) is an Aboriginal Australian. He led the Australian contingent this year in Tokyo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The 2020 Olympics concluded in Tokyo, Japan, in early August. Although they played in empty stadiums, the athletes nonetheless made wonderful displays of power, beauty and sportsmanship. Sport teaches us a lot about ourselves. But what role do they play in the life of indigenous communities around the world?

Do the natives make better sportsmen? Certainly, the Indian Olympic team has always had several members from the adivasis regions, many of whom brought laurels to the country. Globally, too, Cathy Freeman’s performance at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 is remembered. Yet why are there exclusive events like the World Indigenous Games?

To get answers to these questions, Down To Earth spoke with Christian Wacker, President of ISOH, the International Society of Olympic Historians. Edited excerpts from the interview:

Rajat Ghai: Is there a difference between the perspective of indigenous peoples on sporting activity and that presented in the Olympic Charter?

Christian Wacker: At the level of competition, physical and sports activities are part of cultural expression and have always been practiced by humanity. Indigenous peoples, like all ethnic groups, have their specific traditions in physical activity and sport.

It should be remembered that we all belong to some sort of ethnic group and have our own expressions. Cultural diversity also means diversity in physical performance.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and later the Olympic Charter were created at a time when nation states began to form around the world and gradually replaced monarchies.

One of the principles that Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the IOC defined when developing the framework for the future Olympic Games, was that nations should confront each other peacefully.

Therefore, athletes should belong to nations and not to cultures, ethnicities or tribes. In addition, the competitive element following British sporting principles is a key asset at the Olympics.

The two, belonging to a nation and to the competition, contradict many cultural and indigenous physical activities and by nature are not compatible.

RG: Has world sport, including the Olympics, appropriated indigenous sports and culture? Please give examples.

CW: World sports need globally accepted rules and procedures that do not exclude indigenous peoples. But ethnic specifications are hardly adopted globally.

Nevertheless, all sports and physical activities derive from specific cultural contexts before they become international.

Surfing is a vivid example. It is culturally related to Hawaii but has been adopted around the world and therefore practiced around the world. Beach volleyball had been played on Brazilian beaches and today the Scandinavian teams are among the best in the world.

German gymnastics is also a good example of a cultural sport adopted around the world. Originally, he wasn’t even supposed to be competitive. But it has been adapted to the needs of world practicality and still has exceptional popularity.

RG: How different was the 2021 Olympics for a Patty Mills than it was for a Tom Longboat in 1908?

CW: A century ago, societies were hierarchical and elitist, defining the positions of each within a nation.

Indigenous athletes at the turn of the 20th century competed in the Olympics as representatives of a nation and not as part of a tribe and received credits for it. But not as an indigenous person.

Our societies today are diverse and pride themselves on being tolerant and respectful of human rights. The situation for Indigenous sports stars is different and many of them use their popularity to promote their needs and rights as Indigenous peoples.

RG: What challenges do Indigenous athletes face in traditional world sport, including the Olympics, compared to those who are not of Indigenous descent?

CW: World sport is motivated by “national belonging” and “competition”. You have to accept it, if you want to play a leading role in it. Cultural sporting expression has almost no place.

RG: Does the indigenous representation of modern nation states in sporting events help reconciliation or does it represent a moral dilemma?

CW: Almost all of the nation states in our world are political and / or historical constructs. Sometimes they represent the dominant cultures of their territories or create new ones like the former USSR.

Indigenous representation within nation states at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics primarily meant domination of one culture over another. It should also be remembered that currently, 574 recognized Native American tribes live within the territory of the United States.

The physical expression of diverse cultures across the world must be preserved and promoted, but cannot be squeezed into the global sports systems that we know.


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