“That’s great, the recognition,” he says. “But what more can we do? There’s always been a willingness to be open to continue and engage. Everyone remembers Cathy and Nova Peris as a couple of key Olympians.
“So how do we celebrate that but also as a collective, how do we share this? Of course you can have great performances, but what does that mean for the country and as an Olympic movement? The oldest living culture plus Torres Strait Islanders, how do we celebrate that?”
Later in the year, Johnson and the IAC will host a forum for the nation’s Olympic athletes called “Walk With Us”. He sees it as a chance to educate and encourage discussion and questions. Johnson sees it as a stepping stone. Even a speedster like Johnson can’t cram 60,000 years into two hours.
But he feels the climate is ripe for robust discussion and education and that Australia’s Olympians are ready for some conversations that could be difficult, challenging, uplifting and enlightening.
“There’s always a moment in time or a catalyst,” he says. “Black Lives Matter has created an opportunity to talk about it, because it’s front and centre all around the world. We have to deal with it now, because it’s right in front of us. It’s good and bad, let’s be honest.
“Things have been happening for a long time in this country. Education is key here. It’s always been there, but now there is a time and place to listen and learn and discuss and debate these issues.
“Previously, it would have been said it wasn’t the time, or it’s too political. Timing is life. You run in an Olympics or you miss the Olympics. It can all come down to timing. It’s what you do with your time that will created positive change.
“With Black Lives Matter it’s created a different space. We need to talk a lot more. People might think, ‘I better not ask that because it might offend’. But we see it as: ‘Hang on, if you don’t ask, you don’t know’.
“We’re trying to get to the truth of the matter. We’ll talk about moments in our history, things like the Uluru Statement. We’ll talk about Black Lives Matter and ask as an Olympian, what do you stand for?”
There are more practical matters at hand as well. Johnson and other committee members, such as race walker Beki Smith, believe Australia is sitting on a gold mine of ability among young Indigenous athletes.
But the fight for talent is desperate, supercharged by the cashed-up football codes, and relatively poorly resourced Olympic sports have to scrap and fight for every foothold across the nation. Johnson wants to help that change.
“We want to see another Cathy,” he says. “Why haven’t we seen one? Where is the pathway for another Cathy Freeman? Let’s create a path for that to happen, let’s work with organisations and try to make that work.
“Of course we work with everyone, but have we looked at the natural ability and talent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. They have so many skills … so many of them can’t be taught or coached. But how do you get them in the door and teach them how to get to the top level?”
Smith says she is honoured to be among the current athletes on the panel and, like Johnson, is eager to start conversations and help make concrete change sooner rather than later.
“Being a current athlete, it means so much to me to have some influence,” Smith says. “We need change. It’s just got to happen and it has to come from the Indigenous voices working with non-Indigenous people in sport. It’s a great way to combine our forces and move forward.
“It’s been very powerful already. Seeing things in motion, just the open-mindedness and those that are working at the AOC at the moment has been amazing.
“It’s not us and them, we all want the same thing and that goal is to make Australian sport better. It’s about what can we fix now to provide a better opportunity for the future. Let’s make some meaningful change now. It’s a common goal.”
Smith already works with Athletics Australia to help find the next generation of Indigenous Olympic stars and has been blown away by the raw talent among the youth of Australia’s First Nations peoples.
“The raw, natural talent of these youngsters is just incredible,” she says. “They go back home and there’s no resources or coaching or equipment. We need the funding to be able to make sure that can continue when they get back to their communities.”
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