“If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a million times, HOW AM I MEANT TO REPRESENT A COUNTRY THAT DOESN’T EVEN REPRESENT ME.”
Liz Cambage shared the above words on Instagram in response to a Jockey ad that featured Australia’s Olympic and Paralympic ambassadors and an Australian Olympic Team (AOC) promotional Instagram post. All the athletes in the Jockey advertisement are white. The AOC photo included nine white athletes and one Indigenous athlete.
The lack of inclusion understandably aroused the ire of Cambage, who has spoken openly about how she struggled with her identity as a mixed-race young woman growing up in a whitewashed Australia. On Instagram, she further wrote:
Y’all do anything to remove POC [People of Color] from the forefront when it’s black athletes leading the pack. Until I see y’all doin more @AusOlympicTeam Imma sit this one out.
In response to Cambage’s criticism the AOC issued the following statement to Wide World of Sports:
The AOC acknowledges Liz Cambage’s point with regard to this particular photo shoot. The athletes made available to Jockey could and should have better reflected the rich diversity of athletes who represent Australia at the Olympic Games.
Cambage was unfazed by this “apology,” saying on Instagram:
Australia, wake the f*** up, I’m not playing these games no more. I’m not. You can try and twist my words however you want, it’s not going to work.
Her words have been interpreted as a threat to boycott the 2021 Tokyo Games.
Nobody should be surprised that Cambage reacted to the photos they way she did, as she has consistently made clear how important issues of identity and representation are to her.
Why representation matters to Liz Cambage
While unempathetic critics of Cambage’s comments, including former Australian Opals head coach Tom Maher, may suggest it is “inappropriate to make such a big deal out of pretty much nothing,” issues of representation are not nothing.
Cambage has discussed the mental and emotional strains she experienced because, as a young girl in Australia, she rarely saw women who looked like her be praised, pedestaled or celebrated.
In a 2019 interview with Wide World of Sports, she shared, “I was a black girl growing up in a very white-washed Australia. I didn’t really have too many role models to look up to here in Australia.” Cambage again emphasized these ideas in a 2019 interview with ESPN, noting that she dyed her hair blonde and wore blue contacts as a teenager because:
As a teenager I was really self-conscious because I was so much taller than everyone else. And in Australia there weren’t many black girls around — there definitely weren’t any dark girls on TV — so I didn’t really have anyone to look up to.
In that same interview with Wide World of Sports, Cambage further explained:
I don’t really think I truly realized how hard it was for me growing up until I reflected when I was in my early 20s. That’s when I was really coming to terms with all the little things, all the little micro-aggressions and racist things growing up school and in society. Being told I looked dirty so I wasn’t able to play with certain kids in primary school. Things like that I didn’t really understand until I was older.
Cambage encourages Australia to reckon with its past and be better in the future
Because of her experiences, Cambage has expressed her intent to be that role model for young Black, brown, mixed and Indigenous girls and boys. She told Vice in 2017:
Growing up, I didn’t understand why I wasn’t skinny, small and beautiful like the girls I saw on whitewashed Australian television. I wish I had a black role model growing up that was proud of herself and her body, which is the role model I want to be – not just for sport, but as someone who empowers girls and boys to do what they want and have pride in their passions.
As part of her role-modeling efforts, she not only led Black Lives Matter protests in Australia last summer, but also demanded that Basketball Australia take action. According to the Melbourne Herald Sun, she said:
I represent my country and it’s something I do with great pride. But our beautiful country does have a dark past and I think it’s well and truly time we step up and teach the proper history of this country, Until we do that people cannot respect black lives.
In turn, Cambage asked that the Indigenous flag be featured on the Opals’ uniforms, asserting:
I’d love to see the Indigenous flag on our uniforms. We carry the “rise up” in our hearts and our heads. If we really want to respect this county we need to see those flags on our uniform.
By speaking out strongly against the Jockey ad and AOC photo, Cambage is continuing to insist that Australian sports represent all Australians. She was not just calling for herself to be represented but calling for all Black, brown, mixed and Indigenous Australians to be equitably represented in the image of the country.
For, as Cambage also recently noted on Instagram, athletes of color and Indigenous athletes have been (and will be) at the center of Australia’s Olympic successes.
“Also just to remind you, Australia’s GREATEST sporting moment was thank [sic] too BLACK INDIGENOUS WOMAN,” she posted, invoking the great Cathy Freeman, who won the 400 meters at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.