Athletes won't be punished for carrying Aboriginal flag
SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- The Australian Olympic Committee said Wednesday it will not punish athletes for displaying the Aboriginal flag at the Sydney Games, a move in stark contrast to policies of the past.
Indigenous leaders applauded the decision, which gives official sanction to Aboriginal athletes such as 400-meter favorite Cathy Freeman to carry the red, yellow and black flag during a victory lap.
When Freeman carried the Aboriginal flag on victory laps at the 1994 Commonweath Games, she was publicly rebuked by Australian team chief Arthur Tunstall -- and became a hero to Aborigines.
"I know that when Aboriginal people look at that flag, they all feel good about themselves," Freeman said last year. "If I can help Aboriginals feel good about themselves, I'll do whatever it takes."
The Australian Olympic Committee said it will not encourage athletes such as Freeman to carry the flag, but will not penalize them for an impulsive decision to accept it during a victory lap.
"If someone like Carthy Freeman wants to express her Aboriginality, we won't have any issue if someone from the crowd hands someone a flag," said Julie Symonds, an AOC spokeswoman.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, a group representing indigenous people, praised the decision.
"This is a victory for common sense and a boost for reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians in the leadup to one of the most significant and positive events in our shared history," ATSIC chairman Geoff Clark said.
"Our athletes are competing for more than just medals," Clark added. "They are competing for their communities and pride in their own race."
The flag has a red band as its lower half to depict the earth. A black band on top represents the skin of the people. A yellow circle in the middle is the sun.
Sydney Olympic organizers said earlier this week that spectators will be allowed to bring Aboriginal flags into Olympic venues if they meet size restrictions and do not block the view of other fans.
The AOC's decision comes despite International Olympic Committee rules against athletes promoting political or religious messages. The IOC could not be reached for comment on the AOC's decision to allow the Aboriginal flag.