Indigenous Participation in Australian Sport: The Perils of the ‘Panacea’ Proposition

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Journal Article
Cosmopolitan Civil Societies: an interdisciplinary journal, 2015, 7 (1), pp. 53 - 53
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The argument that participation in sport among disadvantaged populations can produce positive outcomes in wide range of areas has been a consistent theme in academic literature. It is argued that sport participation can promote women’s empowerment, sexuality, lifestyle, peacemaking, youth development, poverty reduction and conflict resolution. Similarly, in Australia, participation in sport among Indigenous Australians has been proffered as a ‘panacea’ for many Indigenous problems; from promoting better health and education outcomes, to encouraging community building, good citizenship and entrepreneurship. Parallel to this has been a focus on documenting and analysing sport participation among Indigenous Australians in elite sport which often concludes that Indigenous Australians have an innate and ‘natural ability’ in sports. These two assumptions, first, that sport participation can help realise a wide range of positive social outcomes; and second, that Indigenous Australians are natural athletes, have driven significant public investment in numerous sport focused programs. This paper questions these assumptions and outlines some of the challenges inherent with an emphasis on sport as a solution to Indigenous disadvantage. We highlight how participation in sport has often been tied to ambitious, ill-defined and, in terms of evaluation, often elusive social outcome goals. Second, we also argue that there is limited research to indicate that participation in either elite or grassroots level sport has led to any discernible social progress in addressing inequality. We contrast historical Indigenous participation in a range of sporting codes to demonstrate the influence of factors beyond the ‘natural ability’ and ‘born to play’ propositions. Finally, we outline six ‘perils’ associated with viewing sport as a panacea; including how privileging sport can not only perpetuate disadvantage by reinforcing stereotypes and also contribute to a diversion of attention and resources away from other approaches that have been proven to have a greater positive social impact.
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