Sport’s role in closing the gap for Australia’s First Nations people
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Despite ongoing barriers, sport has always played an important part in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian lives, and continues to improve health and development outcomes.

Indigenous Australians remain the most disadvantaged and marginalised group in Australia. On all the standard poverty and disadvantage indicators, Indigenous people emerge as the most socially and economically deprived. Compared to the non-Indigenous population, they experience: higher mortality and morbidity rates; lower life expectancy; poor education outcomes; low socio-economic status; and poor employment opportunities.

The 1991 'Inquiry into Aboriginals Deaths in Custody' recommended, among other things, that sports programmes be developed to further social, health and anti-crime goals. Since that time, increasing levels of government and sporting organisation funding have been directed at sports programmes aimed at addressing Indigenous disadvantage by attempting to ‘close the gap’.

The reality is, sport has been both a blessing and curse for Australia’s First Nations people since colonisation. Much like wider Australian society, it has been a double-edged sword of opportunity and exclusion. According to Tatz,

For Aborigines and Islanders, there has been exclusion from competition, discrimination within it and at times gross inequality of chances, choices and facilities.”

Key barriers identified for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in sport include: the difference and diversity of geographical location; the exclusiveness of the current structure of some sports; lack of financial resources; lack of role models working in and playing the game; lack of information and knowledge about the game, and the need for respect. In most remote Aboriginal communities, sports facilities still comprise an unmarked dusty paddock to practise football or cricket.

Opportunities for sport and development

While sport has, in many cases, played a role in creating and maintaining division and discrimination for Indigenous people in Australia, it has also emerged as a very powerful way of engaging them and providing positive outcomes. The enjoyment or fun that active or passive participation in sporting activities generates is both intrinsically beneficial and a powerful hook for engaging communities in programmes with other social or personal development objectives.

The 'Supporting healthy communities through sports and recreation programs' report showed that there are many benefits to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities from participation in sport and recreational programs. Those highlighted include: some improvements in school retention, attitudes towards learning, social and cognitive skills, physical and mental health and wellbeing; increased social inclusion and cohesion; increased validation of and connection to culture; and some evidence of crime reduction.


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Specifically, sport can be a very powerful way of engaging Indigenous people and providing positive outcomes in the areas of health and welfare. The Australian Heart Foundation has pointed to the health benefits to Indigenous Australians of sport and physical activity, including a reduction in risk for chronic disease, coronary heart disease and stroke, bowel and breast cancer, diabetes and depression. While sporting events and carnivals have helped to promote greater responsibility in managing health conditions and support greater awareness of issues impacting on health in communities.

While the effects of sports and recreation programs can be powerful and transformative, it is important to consider that these effects tend to be indirect and therefore hard to measure. The 'Investigating Indicators for Measuring the Health and Social Impact of Sport and Recreation Programs in Indigenous Communities' report, which proposes indicators for measuring health and social outcomes from sport and recreation programs in Indigenous communities, stressed the need to concurrently monitor and evaluate programmes, and structures and processes to provide insight into what makes them succeed or fail in their aims.

While the difference in life outcomes for First Nations people remains stark compared with the rest of Australia, sport continues to demonstrate ways we can work towards closing the gap.

Dr Paul Oliver is an advisor to Australian sports and governments on safeguarding, inclusion and integrity matters. He was the Adjunct Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Curtin University (2017-18).


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