On Saturday night he was named Australian of the Year. But for Adam Goodes, Australia Day is a day of mourning: ”It’s a very sad day for a lot of our mob.”
January 26 brings a tumult of emotion for the Sydney Swans player, dual Brownlow medallist, revered figure in indigenous and footy communities and a national inspiration.
The 34-year-old was excited to be crowned NSW Australian of the Year last November. ”It’s quite an amazing honour,” he says.
But he says he finds it difficult to buy into a celebratory notion of Australia Day ”because of the sadness and the mourning and the sorrow of our people and a culture that unfortunately has been lost to me through generations”.
Goodes grew up believing Australia was founded on a summer’s day in January 1788 when Governor Arthur Phillip staked the flag of the British kingdom in the sand of Sydney Cove. ”I’ve obviously learnt different since then,” he says.
Nevertheless, he finds some cause for optimism. ”We are still here, we’ve got a lot to celebrate about being here and that we have one of the longest serving cultures still alive and kicking.”
For the past couple of years, Goodes has had football engagements on Australia Day morning but in the afternoon, he has found his people: fellow Swans player Lewis Jetta, and his cousin, best friend and former AFL player Michael O’Loughlin, with whom Goodes established the mentoring Goodes-O’Loughlin Foundation in 2009. They end up at the Yabun Festival in Victoria Park, Camperdown to celebrate Aboriginal culture and music.
He doesn’t judge flag-waving, beer-swilling celebrations taking place elsewhere. ”Good luck to them,” he says. ”That’s what I love about Australia: we can do things the way that we want to do them because that’s the way our country is, no matter what culture you come from, you can come to Australia and practise your religion, you can practise your beliefs and you should not be judged for that and I think that’s what I love about Australia is that we have this freedom.”
Goodes hopes that this year he can continue his advocacy for the things that matter to him most, particularly education. And, this weekend in Canberra, where he has moved through a weighty schedule of receptions and lunches and cups of tea alongside other candidates for Australian of the Year, it’s likely he has shared his thoughts with the Prime Minister and the Governor-General, among other significant figures.
”I’m so grateful for this award and this honour, however … the ultimate reward is when all Australians see each other as equals and treat each other as equals,” Goodes said after accepting the award at a ceremony in Canberra that also honoured Fred Chaney as Senior Australian of the Year, Jacqueline Freney as Young Australian of the Year and Tim Conolan as Australia’s Local Hero.
Goodes said that as an indigenous Australian he has experienced his share of racism.
”My hope is that we as a nation can break down the silos between races, break down those stereotypes of minority populations … I hope we can be proud of our heritage regardless of the colour of our skin and be proud to be Australian,” he said.
”It is not just about taking responsibility for your own actions, but speaking to your mates when they take out their anger on their loved ones, minority groups or make racist remarks.”
His mother, Lisa, a member of the stolen generations, accompanied him to Canberra to Saturday’s ceremony. ”She’s very proud, it’s a nice reward for her as well for the sacrifices she’s had to make for us boys to have a better opportunity in life than what she had.”
An Adnyamathanha man, Goodes grew up one of three brothers in Wallaroo, a small town in South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula. The eldest of three brothers, he was brought up mainly by his mother after she split with husband Graham Goodes when Adam was four. The family moved to Adelaide, then Merbein near Mildura, and ultimately Horsham in the Wimmera, where Lisa had a younger sister.
He preferred soccer as a boy. ”He never, ever kicked the footy,” Lisa told journalists in 2003. ”Then one day [in Merbein], he said: ‘I’m not playing soccer, mum’ … I told him to have a go at Aussie rules and he hasn’t looked back.”
Goodes was picked up by North Ballarat Rebels at 16, winning a premiership and the eye of recruiters. At 18, the Swans drafted him. ”I was sad, very sad,” she said.
”It was emotional because it was the first time he’d been away from home, from mum and his brothers. Being Koori, his family is important to him. He found it very hard.”
Today, he holds an elite place as dual Brownlow medallist, dual premiership player, and member of the Indigenous Team of the Century. He hopes to use his public profile to help raise awareness of the push for constitutional recognition of indigenous people.
”There’s nothing in the constitution right now that says Aboriginal people are the first Australians,” Goodes said, arguing for a successful referendum on the issue in the next couple of years.
”It isn’t about us wanting to get our land back, it’s not about wanting compensation, it’s about wanting recognition that we were the first Australians.”
But his advocacy might never be as influential as his demonstration of character and compassion in May 2013. The day after Goodes raised his arm to identify a 13-year-old girl in the MCG crowd who had shouted ”ape” at him, he stood, shaken and shattered, before a media throng.
”It cut me deep,” he said. And then – ”The person that needs the most support now is the little girl. People do need to cut this girl some slack.”
Like Nicky Winmar before him who, in response to racial taunts during a 1993 game, pulled up his shirt to jab proudly at his black body, Goodes became an icon in the journey towards a better Australia.
His hopes for the nation are that ”everyone is treated as equals, through race, religion, sexuality and gender”.
”For me, that equality will bring about great opportunities for everyone in Australia, it’ll also bring great opportunities for us as a nation to prosper and I think we’ll be the envy of the world.”
Stephanie Wood Tim Elliott
26 January 2014