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Australia's dirty little secret

Last week Crikey published Ian Thorpe’s speech (republished below) given at the Beyond Sport Summit held earlier this month in London. I always thought he was a nice lad.

Australia’s dirty little secret
by Ian Thorpe

For me this is an ambiguous topic.

As you may or may not be aware I am indeed an Olympian, I am no longer competing as a swimmer. I do take pride in my achievements in the pool and the valuable insight and education it has allowed me to take on, as I travelled the globe throughout my career.

When we speak of athletes there is a great deal that we know, like what is required of them, for me that meant 30 hours of training a week. We do this training just so we have a sporting chance to fulfil our life long dreams.

My travels with my sport since I was a very young and shy 14 year old opened the world to me, I didn’t realise at the time that this adventure would turn into a career beyond my wildest dreams.

I was the youngest male to ever represent Australia in swimming. By 15 I was the youngest ever male world champion. At 16 I broke four world records in four days and at 17 I was Olympic Champion, I had fulfilled my life long ambition as a child. I quickly realised I was a child in an adult world.

It was the child in me that throughout my career questioned why? Why is it so? Why is it done that way and why is the world the way it is?

In my travels, competition took me to places where sometimes I was met with abject poverty, whilst I simply swum. Why was my life so blessed when others just by fate had less opportunity than I? I guess I witnessed at a very young age how sport is an international language, a language that transcended borders, boundaries, cultural ideology, politics and even socio economic disadvantage.

I have only discussed my career up to when I was seventeen. It is because when I was 18 I established my charity, “Fountain for youth”. I didn’t realise at the time that this may be my biggest accomplishment. An achievement not in the sense of doing something right, rather a stepping stone where my values that I had gained from sport could be transferred to something that is bigger than sport and in my opinion far more important.

That said, sport was what has made me who I am today and has afforded me the privilege to work beyond sport. My charity work didn’t begin at 18, I was just 15 when I began working with those less fortunate then myself. It was those years that shaped my understanding of what charity was. It gave me an insight into the power of celebrity and sport, especially in sport mad Australia.

I realised my value to organisations trying to bring positive change lent enormous weight to these causes. I must say though this should be an outrage, because as an athlete I am not as qualified to comment on health or education as the health professionals and educators who daily tackle the big issues. In fact it is a bit disappointing that a teenager’s opinion garnered more attention than those who had been working on their chosen causes before I was even born. This realisation of the opportunity that my voice and name could lend to an excellent cause was the simple foundation laid, for my very own charity.

I continued to win medals, breaking world records and continued travelling around the world recognising the needs of people, particularly children, in many places I visited. By this time my charity had enough money raised to commit to larger projects, I sat at a board meeting and stated that I wanted to help the world’s neediest children.

I started to think of what impact my effort could have in places like Africa or South East Asia. I then visited some of the worlds neediest communities, places without access to planes and cars that seemed to be a world away … but now they were truly at my back door.

The communities that I visited had illiteracy levels at 93% … that was staggering only seven percent of a populous being able to read and write. Up to 80% of the children in these communities have serious hearing impairments because of “glue ear”; middle ear infections neglected from infancy. These kids will never hear the teacher in front of them in a classroom … that is, if there is a teacher and indeed a classroom.

Malnourished mothers are giving birth to babies that are seriously underweight and this only gets worse throughout a life born into poverty. Here diabetes affects one in every two adults. Kidney disease is in epidemic proportions in communities where living conditions; primary healthcare and infrastructure are truly appalling.

In this part of the world even the community leaders are afflicted by clusters of chronic illness. Syndrome X, the doctors call it, diabetes, renal disease, strokes, hypertension, cancer and heart disease. Some people die with four or five of these chronic illnesses.

Rheumatic heart disease among the children in these places is higher than in most of the developing world. But I was not visiting communities in the developing world, I was in the middle of Australia, remote, yes, but this is Australia, a country that can boast some of the highest standards of living of any nation in the world. How shocked I was that Syndrome X was afflicting so many of the 460, 000 Indigenous people of my country. As a result of these chronic illnesses and conditions Aboriginal life expectancy has fallen twenty years behind the rest of Australia. For some of my fellow countrymen life expectancy had plunged to just 46 years.

Australia’s grim record on health care for Indigenous people is by far the worst of any developed nation. Developed? How can a country be “developed” when it leaves so many of its children behind? Australia has not provided its citizens with an equal opportunity for primary health care, education, housing, employment, let alone recognition and a life of dignity.

Now I don’t expect you to just take my word for it. I am not a Doctor, I am simply an athlete. But ask Australian health professionals like Doctor Jim Hyde who says that while our nation has plenty of medical problems, only Indigenous Australians are facing a genuine health crisis.

The Governor of NSW, my home State, Professor Marie Bashir, an eminent Child Psychiatrist, has repeatedly pointed out the national disgrace of allowing the forty per cent of Indigenous children under the age of fifteen to put up with health problems found in no other developed nation. Patrick Dodson, winner of the Sydney Peace Prize and one of out greatest Statesmen, identifies health as a human right for Indigenous Australians.

“Only the most urgent government action”, said Australia’s “Father of Reconciliation”, “could change the inequality that has created this health tragedy in our own backyard.”

How could citizens with the greatest need be so under funded? If we were to indeed recognise the severity of this gross neglect, funding to these communities should be extradited.

A commitment to the first Australians is well within the means of my country, and this is what I find inexcusable. I am talking about an issue with a solution. For Australia to heal its wounds that have been weeping for 200 years we must not ignore the issue, we must start the healing.

Like many people in Australia I was completely unaware of the huge gap in health and education outcomes let alone the differences of life expectancy. I, as many had, made an assumption; Australia is a rich country, don’t we throw a lot of money at that problem? It disgusts me to speak those words now but that was what I thought. This was not just my lack of knowledge of this area but it is echoed throughout my nation.

An Aboriginal health expert, Shane Houston says:

Aboriginal people are viewed by too many in the Australian community as an unwelcome burden on the nation. Governments say they have spent a lot of money on Aborigines but where do you see the results in this squalor? So the mainstream concludes that Aboriginal health is a waste of money. It is all the fault of the poor blacks.

My people are somehow expected to just extricate themselves from this maze of life-threatening conditions. And if we can’t manage to do that, then many white people will shrug and say our end is inevitable.

Visiting Aboriginal people, in their homes, their communities, on their land, has allowed me to listen and given me some idea of the problems that Aboriginal people face. I listened to the concerns of mothers and fathers for the betterment of their children. This unwavering strength, in the face of social injustice. Within these communities I witness poverty, despair and pain … but I also see hope … hope from those men and woman who want more for their children.

With the words of these people in my head, I became part of a campaign in Australia called; “Close the Gap”, it is quite simply a program that recognises the difference between Indigenous and non Indigenous life expectancy in Australia and the huge gaps in all of the factors like education, jobs and housing that leave Aboriginal people so deeply disadvantaged.

Close the Gap is a commitment that this difference is unacceptable. It was supported by the Government and also the opposition. This is the kind of action that is required in Australia. The issue of Indigenous health and education goes beyond government, it is a fundamental right. I hope all sides of government continue to commit to this policy as a starting point and it is not another hollow promise that falls short.

Just this week Australia’s Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd said that it was “devastating” that a new report by our productivity commission showed that Aboriginal people had made little progress to close those gaps since 2000. He said this was “unacceptable” and “decisive action” had to be taken. The truth is that none of the problems I have mentioned can truly be rectified until our government and my fellow Australians recognise the injustice faced by Aboriginal Australians and how they are denied so many human rights.

This has been highlighted once again by what is called in Australia “The Intervention”, the Federal Government’s takeover of 73 remote Aboriginal communities.

The Intervention was constructed by the previous government and has since been reported to have been assembled in the space of just one day. The irony is that Aboriginal people had been campaigning for decades about the living conditions and the neglect of their children within their communities. The programs to protect and nurture the children, had been grossly neglected and under funded by government over the last decade. What appears to be a political stunt and a grab for government control over Aboriginal people continues to this day under the new government.

Once more an Australian government has claimed it is doing its best for Aboriginal Australians by taking over their communities, appointing white managers, more government bureaucrats, promising all kinds of things, if Aboriginal people will just sign over their communities under forty year leases to the Federal Government. And politicians wonder why Aboriginal people do not trust them.

The truth is for over 200 years Australian governments have neglected and patronized Aboriginal people.

The Intervention is unlikely to provide any lasting benefit to Aboriginal people because it tries to push and punish them, to take over their lives, rather than work with them. One of Australia’s oldest and wisest Aboriginal leaders, Galawuy Yunupingu says the only way forward is for Aboriginal communities in these remote areas to be led and organised by their own organisations. Assimilation will not work.

So in the work I do, the way I try to contribute through my organisation, Fountain for Youth, we work with Aboriginal teachers, health workers, parents and children, with the health services and the schools, to encourage people to believe that we can move forward together. We support pre-schooling, health education, literacy backpacks that let kids carry home reading for the whole family. And we use sport where we can to make a difference.

As a swimmer, who would have thought I would have ended up supporting Flipper Ball, junior water polo for little Aboriginal kids in the mining communities of Western Australia. As a swimmer, who would have thought I would be back at university studying psychology and at the same time working with young Aboriginal university graduates on a mentoring program to help get more kids to complete High School and go on with their studies. As a swimmer, maybe I was expected to just be satisfied with the gleam of those gold medals. But all sportsmen and women know the truth — there is something beyond sport.

There is the challenge of playing a part in the human family … to contribute and make a difference. We can use sport and use our sporting status to improve the lives of children and whole communities in so many places. We can make it a fairer, safer playing field for everyone.

In twenty remote Australian communities and with thousands of Aboriginal children I know life will have some extra opportunities if I commit to work hard on this.

I do intend to work hard at this for the rest of my life.

That is my promise to you — beyond sport!


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Extra tax a non-issue with this

Writing of feel good messages as opposed to concrete action, one is going on in America at this time. That reliable old bugbear "quality" universal health.

Obama will lose this one, as those before have lost. That's not in dispute, what's in dispute is why he will lose - and it won't be because of the usual trotted out devils.

Most Americans would prefer a form of "first quality" universal healthcare. Most Americans would even be willing to pay more for such a system. This comes across in all surveys, so what's the problem? The wrong question is being asked that's what.

It's not possible to have a first quality system for all Americans, irrespective of the money made available. With healthcare you're dealing with a limited resource. A limited resource that theoretically can have more and more successful outcomes (people live longer and more problems are treatable) as the years roll on. Hence a limited and sought after resource is bid for. That's the expense. An expense that's higher than core inflation year after year.

A doctor, researcher, whatever, leaving Australia for a top US hospital is a loss for Australia and a gain for America say. A drug or a piece of equipment helping one person is something that's not helping a person somewhere else. That's it, and it's as cold, hard, and simple as that. From individual to individual, from nation to nation, that's it in a nutshell.

The point is for every American to enjoy the same level of care, a certain level of care many currently enjoy will need to be lowered. For some to improve others must accept less. North America has easily the best medical care in the world, paying world customers aren't headed to the UK, Sweden or any other universal system. The problem of course is that the resource is limited, always has been and always will be. Government money made available will not change a mathematical equation. Even if it were possible (America doesn't have the funds), it could only happen at the expense of other nations.

The question therefore should be: are people (covered) willing to have their children accept less care then is currently available to them? The answer I think is obvious.

The interesting debate will be when the UK and Australia go through it. And believe me, that day will being forced a lot sooner than many are expecting.


Far better that we "unqualified" untermenschen keep our mouths shut and let the "qualified" politicians, lawyers, bankers, accountants and economists just get on with it. They've been doing such a good job running the place lately.

Closing the gap

I visited a friend who works in a remote indigenous community in the NT recently, and came to the conclusion that there is no chance the "gap" will be closed for these people while they do not have full access to their land.

This small community is mostly confined to a few arid hectares of the land they "own" in theory under Native Title legislation (though I think this particular community's ownership is still going through the years of processing to be recognized), while pastoralists make a living off the rest. The pastoralists also consider they own the land and while there is supposed to access for hunting and ceremonial activities, "bush trips" are not looked upon favourably by the pastoralists. In any case, under drought conditions, there is not much to be hunted, with roos having to compete with the cattle for sparse vegetation.

How can governments be insisting on "real" jobs, when there is no economic basis from which to create them? How can health and education ever improve while people are forced to live in such poverty?

They can't leave. That would break the continuous association with the land that is required under Native Title.

Besides, they don't want to. They would be abandoning their identity. So the choice is know who you are, be part of your family, community and land, and live in abject poverty with a life expectancy 15 - 20 years less than the rest of Australia, or leave for a bigger centre for the chance of a more materially secure life and suffer a soul-destroying disconnection which you may want to try to anaesthetize with alcohol and other self-destructive pursuits.

a choleric outburst

It's a shock to watch articles on the TV news that actually deal with real world issues, they occur so rarely.

Tonight a depressing report on poverty, civil war and aid problems from West Africa had the writer utterly gobsmacked at some of the graphic footage of real poverty and the content matter overall left me utterly depressed.

But well done, SBS. At last something not sanitised, so that it didn't "upset families", or whatever other stupid twaddle the networks give out for not including news during the news.

Australians are so cotton-woolled from the grim realities that are so much a part of life, if you can call it that, throughout so much of the world.

It worries me that some would seem to even imply that they would want this to continue. How can people be better off for not knowing important things?

Why on earth not show people the truth and reality?

Against say, the latest report dwelling on what colour knickers Britlee Spears or Bradgelina is wearing , or the runaway win for the visitors in the latest round of the World Farnarkling Championships, despite drug testing?

Or yuppies in the mortgage belt "doing it hard", having to give up their gym memberships and all, to begin to pay off all the debt they have incurred in mindless pursuit of conspicuous consumption for no better than self-absorbed infantile vanity grown out of imposed ignorance by others of the truth, coupled with a parentally wilful upbringing grounded on victimhood/entitlement?

Gee Malcolm, don't you like the message?

I think the maturing of Thorpe and his willingness to use his fame to highlight a true and terrible problem in an honest manner is more worthy than your cheap shot at the young man.

He hasn't gone in blind, he is working closely with the other most famous Aussie athlete on a problem dear to her own heart, none other than the magnificent human being Katherine Freeman.

The message or the messenger?

No Marilyn, I don't like the message. It was not a "cheap shot" it was designed to be educative as is most of the commentary (as opposed to whimsy) I have posted on this site over the years.

As always, many of us may differ but I am not given to saying what I do not mean.

Corollary- Kyle Sandilands

Just walking the dog, came to mind, a comparison as to the Ian Thorpe example against say, Kyle Sandilands and the sort of "adult" corporate interests and outlook represented there, in a recent case featured in the media.

Wonder if any WD ers have any thoughts (on that subject, that is!)?

Thorpedo starboard!

I tend to agree with Richard.

The issue is not so much Thorpe's erudition but his situation as an example of how consciousness develops out of youth- what the young discover about the nature of reality as their brains and minds change running into adulthood and maturity. Even athletes at the top level, with all the goldfish bowl connotations that label conjures, so Thorpe tends to  exemplify a general change in sense and sensibility related to growth rather than social status, employ, etc.

For example, some WD'sts would have watched the ABC show on teenagers and alcoholism  last night and been astonished at how neurological changes influence behaviour and responses over a period of years.

Do we underestimate the sheer rate, scope and intensity of change from adolescence to adulthood?

Personally, I find news that young people can change along the lines indicated thruThorpe, in particular after being subjected as a silent observer, to the loud explication of attitudes and behaviours of a group of adolescents, male and female,  expressed in largely primitive terms, on a bus trip to the city this morning,  extremely gratifying.

On the basis of the bus experience alone, let alone combined with what I saw on the ABC doco,  God help us indeed,  if young people don't change from the base level, upward from where these young people presently cognitively reside.

BTW, Malcolm, enjoyed your supplementary comments re justice, elsewhere; also good to see Claude's ghost is doing well.

Terrifiic comments from Thorpe.

Thorpe is in the public eye and beloved of Mum-and-Dad Australia like no other sports person.  He has admirably chosen to use that respectable profile to address an ongoing issue of immense significance.  Hooray.  It makes a very great change from hearing about pack raping footballers and shit-in-the-corridor morons.  Decency. Counts for a lot with me.


Perhaps Mr Thorpe could spend more time absorbing the psychology he is studying, waiting until he has properly understood it, then comment in a mature and considered fashion.

I have always wondered about this young man but more importantly on his type. What gives sportsmen either clout or the qualification to comment on the human condition or politics generally?

Is it an "Oh, I'm in the public eye so I'm qualified to comment on anything" (rather like a Palbert Field commenting on who should be PM) or is he just profoundly stupid?

We had one Rex Mossop; let's not have another one..

One of these days Mr Thorpe might be qualified to give himself a WAIS or some serious ACER tests or I could administer them for him. I am qualified.

That people proficient solely in some physical capacity should pretend to be the arbiters of rational public policy has always, to me, been one of the curiosities of this Nation.

We might be better served if he were back in the gene pool. I gather, from all reports, that is unlikely.


He is a citizen, Malcolm, therefore he not only has the qualification but the duty.

That other people listen to him is their choice.

Pomp and circumstance

He is a citizen, Malcolm, therefore he not only has the qualification but the duty.

That other people listen to him is their choice.

Indeed. The corollary being that, because he is a retired sportsman,  he should have no opinion to listen to... or not.

Perhaps we should only take note of those "educated" enough to mouth an opinion. Like ... lawyers for example?

Father Park

A couple of questions for MBD

Why is Thorpe's opinion less meaningful than any other?  Also, do you have a problem with people already in the public eye using their media profile to promote causes they care about?

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