Cultural differences, socio-economics, an unrepresentative media and a lack of funding opportunities are responsible for a low level of diversity among Australian Olympians, according to an expert.

For many Australians, the Tokyo Olympics provided an escape from the nation’s delta outbreak. But it was hard not to notice that Australia’s medallists mostly represented one sector of a proudly multicultural nation. 

Australian Olympic Teams have historically represented white, privileged athletes. Though over 30 per cent of the Australian population comes from a non-European background, this group was only represented by 11.7 per cent of the 2020 Olympic team. Australian athletes of colour won just five silver and bronze medals out of Australia’s 46 medals. 

Australia’s 2016 Olympic Team was less racially and socio-economically diverse on average than the American and Canadian contingents.

Dr Nasya Bahfen, a LaTrobe University sports diversity expert, said Australians of colour, who are often socio-economically disadvantaged, are financially limited when it comes to investing in extra-curricular pursuits.

“The main concern is, you know, ‘I want a roof over my head. I want to feed my family’,” she said. “And then to have to fork out for swimming classes on top of that… These are very, very expensive pursuits.”

A study conducted in 2017 found Australia’s 2016 Olympic Team was less racially and socio-economically diverse on average than the American and Canadian contingents in that year – both nations with similar social demographics. When individual sports were analysed for accessibility, basketball and rugby were deemed some of the most racially and socio-economically equitable.

The most inaccessible sports included swimming, sailing and rowing, which favoured racially and socio-economically privileged athletes. In Tokyo, athletes from these sports won 13 of Australia’s record 17 gold medals. Dr Bahfen attributes this trend to the low cost of equipment for accessible sports, and the higher financial commitment needed for inaccessible sports.

“It’s just that some sports are incredibly cheap to play and some sports are incredibly expensive to get into,” she said.  

For Indigenous athletes, the Olympic journey is often just as hard, or harder, than other Australians of colour. 

Australia’s first Indigenous athletes didn’t participate until 1968. The 2020 team included the largest ever Indigenous contingent with 16 athletes, taking the total of Indigenous Olympians to 52. First Nations Foundation chair Ian Hamm says socio-economic and cultural factors create a large barrier for potential Indigenous athletes, with most athletes resorting to team sports. 

A lot of Aboriginal people play football or basketball or those type of team sports,” he said. “One: because they’re team sports and Aboriginal people, we work as a community in team sports. For us, [it’s] part of [a] reflection of our community. Two: they’re also really cheap. One Sherrin football will cost you 200 bucks…but that will keep a whole bunch of people amused.”

For Olympic hopefuls, more is required. As Olympians often compete internationally at a young age, the financial pressure on parents to support their children’s careers begins early and lasts longer. The socio-economic disadvantages Indigenous people already face, said Hamm, prevents Indigenous children from competing at international, and eventually, Olympic levels, even if the sport is accessible.

“The ability to have your parents fund you to go to international competitions when you’re 12 years old? No black fellas I know are doing that, I can tell you,” he added.

When you saw the [Australian] Olympic Team marching in, it did seem like it was a scene from a much earlier time when possibly the White Australia policy was still around.

Even when disadvantaged athletes defy the odds and become Olympians, barriers still exist. Runner Peter Bol, relatively unknown before Tokyo, worked as a ride operator in a Perth amusement park months before his Olympic debut in Rio. Bol’s Adidas sponsorship only began in 2019, three years after Rio. In contrast, swimmer Ariarne Titmus’ Nike sponsorship began in 2017. She was also promoted extensively during the Olympic period by Harvey Norman, well before her historic Olympic victories, albeit she was by then the 400m freestyle world champion. 

But Australian Olympic representation goes beyond individual athletes. In May, Australian Olympic sponsor Jockey revealed a promotional photoshoot of the brand’s Olympic and Paralympic spokespeople, all of whom were white athletes.

Opals player Liz Cambage responded via a now-deleted series of Instagram stories criticising the lack of racial diversity in the campaign. The AOC later released a statement reaffirming their commitment to diversity, and named Indigenous basketball player Patty Mills as an opening ceremony flagbearer, alongside swimmer Cate Campbell. Dr Bahfen says incidents like these reflect a wider issue of representation within Australian media. 

“No one bats an eyelid when a black woman is on Fox Sports on Super Bowl day, just reporting,” she said. “So I think other places do diversity a lot better than Australia, and their sense of self, we see it. You know, the Americans are so proud of it. It’s like ‘We’re a melting pot’… Our media looks like it was stuck in the 1950s… When you saw the [Australian] Olympic Team marching in, it did seem like it was a scene from a much earlier time when possibly the White Australia policy was still around.”

But diversity within the AOC is increasing, with more Australians of colour becoming Olympians. Tokyo saw the debut of swimmer Se-Bom Le, Wimbledon champion Ash Barty, and badminton player Simon Leung. Leung says that providing opportunities for young people to try Olympic sports can help increase representation. 

“Just get everyone’s attention, you know, and really promote it [Olympic sports] , have a good, sort of, system within the sport, I think that’s very important,” he said.

“That’s obviously shown a lot of improvement and results coming out from it, just simply with [the] increase of participation numbers within Australia… I think just have a very strong system where it builds, and the support it there for all levels of players that play the sport.”

However, Dr Bahfen believes urgent structural change needs to occur within the AOC by the 2024 Paris Games in order to ensure the organisation remains relevant.

“Particularly with Paris, with its problematic, sort of, history with multiculturalism, I think a national Olympic committee like Australia’s has a real chance to say ‘We can do better’,” she said.

“If they’re not [willing to change], I think that will be a real missed opportunity to try and right the wrongs of these Olympics, in terms of the narrative about who our athletes are and what they should look like.”

Main image by Bryan Turner/Unsplash