MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia has a good chance to clinch gold in the women’s basketball at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics but the nation is unlikely to win any medals for racial tolerance, according to outspoken center Liz Cambage.
The imposing 6-foot-8-inch (2.03m) Cambage has never shied away from confrontation, whether staring down the world’s best on court or battling with social media trolls in her downtime.
In February, Cambage felt moved to publicly call out one of her national team mates for wearing ‘blackface’ at post-season celebrations for her Melbourne basketball club.
While humiliating for Australia forward Alice Kunek, who said her costume was intended to be a tribute to American hip-hop icon Kanye West, the episode was also bruising for Cambage.
The 24-year-old, whose father is Nigerian, was bombarded with abuse on her social media accounts for being too ‘thin-skinned’ after she posted that she was ‘shocked and disturbed’ by her team mate’s action.
“If I don’t call (racism) out, who’s going to do it?” Cambage, who won bronze with Australia’s ‘Opals’ at London, said in an interview with Reuters.
”People are scared to take a stand. If you do take a stand you receive backlash.
”I guess I‘m lucky I learned quite young not to really care what people say. I’ve learnt young to take a stand if I feel like something’s wrong.
”I‘m sick of seeing people get hurt and I‘m sick of seeing people being made fun of.
“We teach kids that bullying is wrong and I don’t think there’s any difference when you’re an adult.”
Cambage speaks from experience, having come out to Australia with her mother at a young age and struggled to fit in at her school on the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne.
A head taller than other girls of her age in a white-majority community, Cambage was taunted for her appearance and found it difficult to make friends.
She was pushed into basketball by her mother who hoped it would help her build confidence.
Although initially reluctant to take it seriously, her natural talent was obvious to coaches and she was offered a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport, the national training center for elite athletes in Canberra, when just 15.
Selected by Tulsa Shock in 2011 as the second draft pick in the WNBA, Cambage played in the United States before her Olympic debut at London the following year, where she made waves with a dunk against Russia in a preliminary round match.
The one-handed jam was said to be the first ever recorded by a woman at the Olympics.
She has since become one of the world’s most sought-after players and her lucrative five-month deal to join a Shanghai team last year put her among Australia’s highest-paid athletes.
Although feeling “lucky” to be Australian, Cambage complains that racial intolerance remains prevalent in local sport from grass-roots through to the elite.
She cited the experience of Adam Goodes, an Aboriginal Australian Rules football star and an anti-racism advocate, who was jeered relentlessly by stadium crowds across the country last year in the final season of a decorated career with the Sydney Swans.
“We pushed one of Australia’s greatest athletes away from what he loved doing through racism and through discrimination,” she said.
”I feel like the whole of Australia should be ashamed for what happened with Adam Goodes. If you want to try bring someone down for standing up for what they believe in, then you should be ashamed of yourself.
”We have such a diverse and multi-cultural country and such a beautiful country but we don’t show how diverse we are and we also don’t own our history of what happened to indigenous Australians.
“We don’t teach proper history in schools so I guess that’s where the ignorance comes from.”
Cambage will represent Australia with pride at Rio, however, and will be important for the Opals’ hopes of capturing an elusive gold after medaling at the last five Olympics.
“Everyone goes to the Games with their eyes on the prize which is a gold medal,” she said.
“Just to be at the Olympics is an achievement but to be able to walk home with a medal is indescribable, really.”
Editing by John O'Brien