Grassroots support key to sporting success

At four years old, Patrick Mills began his basketball journey, playing for an Indigenous basketball team in Canberra set up by his parents called “The Shadows”.

While his basketball flourished, he also played Australian Rules football and had a potential career at the highest level, playing in the AFL national under-15 championship. But his love for basketball was always far greater and he accepted a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport’s basketball program in 2004.

Things continued on an upward trajectory for Mills who signed a contract to play college basketball for St Mary’s College in California two years later, then had his name called out by the Portland Trailblazers with pick 55 in the 2009 NBA draft.

Now one of the world’s most respected basketball players, Mills made history this year when he became Australia’s first Indigenous Olympic flag bearer and helped his country to their first ever Olympic medal win, something he described to media as the proudest moment in his decorated career.

Tweet: Patty_Mills. Twitter.

Mills’ journey began at a grassroots level, building a strong foundation for his career from a young age. If state and national sporting organisations aren’t running programs to get Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children involved in sports initially, is it likely to impact the number of Indigenous Olympians in years to come?

Being selected for an Olympic Games can be the pinnacle of an athlete’s career, however for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sportspeople, it means so much more than a chance to be crowned ‘the best in the world.’ 

It gives them a chance to inspire, and to educate people around the world about their culture by representing their ‘mob’.

An Indigenous celebration at a Perth hockey club. Photo: Erin Harwood.

Of the 478 Australian athletes who attended the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games, 16 were Indigenous, making up three per cent of the total number of athletes in attendance for the country. Compared to Australian Census data from 2016, which states that 2.5 per cent of the population is Indigenous, this number seems favourable but it’s how this number compares to Indigenous representation in other sports that is concerning.

AFL Queensland reports that Indigenous players make up nine per cent of the league, with 103 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives across the AFL and AFLW. If the AFL boasts such a culturally-diverse cohort, it shows this benchmark number is possible.

WA sporting organisation Athletics West was in the spotlight earlier this year after sprint coach Lindsay Bunn made a formal complaint, claiming significant funding cuts would mean remote talent identification camps and development trips were likely to take a hit.

Athletics West was formed by an amalgamation between Athletics WA and Little Athletics, and after the merge around $25,000 worth of funding disappeared. Approximately half of a yearly Healthway grant was being allocated to the program initially, however is no longer occurring.

Some sporting programs may be run well, but lack the funding to support athletes sufficiently.

Children in remote schools are not always given the same sporting opportunities as those elsewhere. Photo: Erin Harwood.

Indigenous Basketball Australia is a not-for-profit set up by Patty Mills which aims to deliver sporting programs for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to promote their chances in elite sport and to inspire them to be the best they can be in life.

IBA Torres Strait Island regional coordinator Mick Loban says funding and recognition are crucial to the development of better pathways from grassroots to Olympic level sports.

“Making representative teams is really hard for [children in the Torres Strait Islands],” Loban says.

“We get to go to the national level and play, but we only get through to the peninsula trials on the mainland.

“Half of the time we can’t get through because it might be hard, us not being there to make the rep team training. That might be why they would rather pick the kids on the mainland.

“So you have to be really, really, really good to make it.”

Mick Loban – Indigenous Basketball Australia

According to Loban, having Mills as a mentor is an integral part of the program’s success. Mills hailing from the Torres Strait Islands himself.

“Having [Mills] is really big for us, to a lot of the kids, that is their big brother, their big cousin. They really look up to him,” he said.

Patty Mills (left) and Alex Winwood at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Photo: Alex Winwood.

Not only a mentor to these children, Mandurah resident and Noongar man Alex Winwood says Mills began as an idol for him, the two becoming friends after meeting.

“It is kind of a relationship that I have dreamed of having,” Winwood says.

“Just to meet him, and then have normal chats about family, and life back home and things like that, it just made me see how grounded he was.

“If anything, it made me more of a fan of him.”

Tokyo Olympian Alex Winwood and Renee Rockliff are both part of the AIS Share a Yarn initiative. Audio: Erin Harwood.

Projections for this year’s Census results suggest approximately 62 per cent of Indigenous people do not live in major cities.

For this reason, grassroots sports play a huge role in generating a diverse representation, by not only getting the athletes involved, but continuing to foster their relationships with sports until reaching a higher level.

The Australian Olympic Commission is one of many bodies that has released a Reconciliation Action Plan recently, which aims to reflect and recognise the history and culture of Aboriginal Australians.

“The purpose of the RAP is to “recognise the heritage, culture and contribution of our Nation’s First people and give practical support to the issue of Indigenous reconciliation through sport,” says AOC president John Coates.

The plan involves action points such as building strong relationships with Indigenous stakeholder groups, as well as including more Indigenous arts and culture within practices, and supporting programs which promote Indigenous athlete pathways.

Some state sporting organisations such as Basketball WA, Softball WA and Hockey WA have also taken steps to encourage Indigenous participation from grassroots to an elite level. 

Hockey is one of the most successful sports at an Olympic Games, with three medals won since 1996. The sport has a large following in remote WA, being played as far south as Esperance, and as far north as the Pilbara.

Children in regional areas as far as 1000km from Perth recently met some of the country’s best hockey players when the sport’s governing body Hockey Australia introduced the Goldfields Community Hockey Program.

Hockey Australia is committed to a multicultural future. Video: Erin Harwood.

In 1992, Swimmer Samantha Riley historically won a bronze medal and became the first Indigenous Australian medallist at an Olympic Games. Since then, 14 medals have been won by 11 individuals.

Australia boasts a long Indigenous Olympic history. Infographic: Erin Harwood.

The Australian Olympic Committee says it hopes the number of Indigenous athletes at the Olympic Games will increase further in upcoming years.