Light heavyweight fighter Damien Hooper, Aborigine from Australia, made waves this week when he entered the Olympic boxing ring in London wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the Aboriginal flag before a bout. The move was a violation of International Olympic Committee (IOC) rules, which forbids the displaying of flags that don’t represent competing nations. Political statements are also forbidden, although sometimes tolerated if cleared beforehand. He could have been disqualified for his act of civil disobedience.
Instead, Hooper got a warning and a reprimand from Australian Olympic chef de mission Nick Green, who told reporters that the boxer was “was extremely apologetic. He has confirmed with me that it was a ‘one-off’ and that he won’t do it again.” However, A spokesman for the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) said the committee had informed Olympic organizers. He said Hooper could face disciplinary action.
A spokesman for the IOC has confirmed to the U.K.’s Independent newspaper, however, they would not seek to punish Hooper, who in 2010 became the first indigenous Australian to win a junior world title. An IOC statement said: “It is in the first instance for the AOC to deal with their athlete and we fully support their approach.” Hooper has been allowed to continue to fight for gold, and his next bout is today at 11:15 a.m./E.T. versus tough Russian Egor Mekhontsev. The winner advances to the division’s quarterfinals. Hooper is regarded as Australia’s best chance at a boxing medal since 1988.
Hooper, who also has the Aboriginal flag tattooed on his body, had defended his wearing of the shirt ahead of his previous fight in which the 20-year-old beat U.S. fighter Marcus Browne. “I’m an Aborigine representing my culture and my people here at the Olympic Games,” he said.
Hooper was unrepentant over his action, saying: “I’m Aboriginal, representing my culture, not only my country but my people as well. I’m very proud and that’s what I wanted to do and I’m happy I did it. I was just thinking about my family and what mattered to me. It made my whole performance a lot better.”
Aboriginal and First Nations leaders across the world have come out in support of Hooper’s action.
According to Postmedia News, four-time Canadian Olympian Sharon Firth, a member of the Dene Nation who competed for Canada in the 1970s and 1980s, said that she applauds Hooper for standing up for indigenous people worldwide.
“What’s the big deal?” said Firth. “The IOC should examine themselves, broaden their horizons, and wake up.”
She and her sister, Shirley Firth-Larsson, were the first two aboriginal females to be members of Canada’s Women’s National Cross-Country Ski Team. They went to the Olympics four times between 1970 and 1982.
“We came up against racism from the Canadian Olympic Committee—but that wasn’t our problem. It was theirs,” said Firth, who said she competed first as a Dene woman, and second for Canada.
“We were pioneers, out there creating political statements whether we liked it or not, because anywhere we show our face, it’s political.”
Firth said Hooper’s display will resonate with First Nations, Inuit and Métis people in Canada, Postmedia News reported, because “when an indigenous person goes to the Olympics, they’re representing all indigenous people.
“There are 370 million of us worldwide—we’re not going down easy.”
Historically, the IOC has allowed Olympians to make positive political statements at the games—as long as the person asks permission first, Dr. Janice Forsyth, director of the University of Western Ontario’s International Centre for Olympic Studies and a member of Fisher River First Nation in Manitoba, told Postmedia News.
“It was incredibly naïve to think that an industry as complex as the Olympics would allow someone to do that,” said Forsyth of Hooper’s gesture. “They have to let the world know they’re going to enforce their own rules.”
The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, which advocates for the rights of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, said the incident was “bureaucratic insanity,” according to a statement. “Boxer Damien Hooper has a right to show his identity as an Aboriginal person in the Australian team.”
“He has nothing to apologize for. Our peoples should be able to show that they are both Aboriginal and Australian.”
There shouldn’t have been any grounds for punishment at all, according to Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner in Australia. In an interview with Australia’s The World Today TV news program, Gooda said: “The Aboriginal flag is actually— and the Torres Strait Islander flag— they’re official flags of Australia. But having said that, is it a political statement implying official flag of Australia, I don’t know, but obviously someone in the Olympic movement thinks so.
“But look, I think we shouldn’t draw too much into it, he’s at the Olympic Games for the first time, he’s representing his country. He feels he’s representing his people, we’re proud of him. He’s made a statement, let’s just let him get on with the business now.”
Ann Tindall, president of Australia’s Boxing Queensland, has known Hooper for years as he’s developed into a world-class boxer. She told The World Today, “I think it might be just the Australian Olympic officials that have a problem with it. An Aboriginal shirt—it’s just a shirt that’s representing his culture. That’s not a branding, that’s not something that’s making somebody mega bucks. Nobody’s given him $1 million to wear that on TV.
“That’s just something that’s saying ‘this is who I am, I’m proud of it, look at me, I’m doing this for you.’ And for me that’s what Damien’s all about, he’s done that for his family and his friends and he’s saying I am proud—proud as an Australian and proud as an Aboriginal Australian.”