Doctoral candidates Jo Pilcher and Adam Talbot outline a seminar event at the University of Brighton focusing on the symbolic inclusion of the ‘Other’ in the Sydney and Rio Olympic Ceremonies.

Olympic ceremonies are frequently among the most-watched television events in the world. They present a unique moment for cities and countries to rebrand themselves, shaping the way they are perceived by the world and their own population. Witness, for example, London’s display of confidence in 2012 or Beijing’s coming of age in 2008. But while these performances provide an opportunity to reshape host cities and nations, they do not begin with a blank slate and are bound up with all the complexities of international geopolitics. With much of the audience engaging with the event from afar, these ceremonies are mediated events. The Indigenous Moment seminar sought to explore how stigmatised groups were used in the construction of national narratives within the opening ceremonies of the Sydney (2000) and Rio (2016) Olympic Games and how this was received by an international audience.

This seminar was the result of collaboration; we were paired up through University of Brighton’s Opposites Attract event, where PhD students are partnered with colleagues from other schools. Jo is based in the School of Architecture and Design, and is researching textile design in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory of Australia from 1988 to present day. Adam is based in the School of Sport and Tourism, researching protest around the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Adam’s research focuses on protests surrounding the Rio Olympics and Jo is interested in how Indigenous Australians were included in the Sydney Olympics; together we decided that the two opening ceremonies would provide an interesting case study for us to discuss issues of representation, reconciliation and exploitation.

Firstly, we considered the ceremonies as designed objects. In both of these ‘spectacles’, a marginalised other is integral to the performance of nation. In Rio, the stage takes the form of a favela, that is, long-neglected communities dotted around the city where sewerage and safety are not guaranteed. In Sydney, the ceremony was guided by Djakapurra Munyarryun representing the indigenous people who face a multitude of exclusionary practices in modern day Australia. These marginalised groups were not only included, but celebrated, in the Olympic opening ceremony, despite the detrimental impacts of hosting the Games. Indigenous concerns related to the Sydney Games were routinely marginalised, while 80,000 favela residents were evicted in the lead up to Rio 2016. Sydney’s Olympic ceremony has been heavily criticised for its tokenistic inclusion of indigenous culture which was not reflected by government action at the time. This is underlined by Ric Birch’s description of the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians as ‘the Indigenous moment’. In comparison, Rio’s ceremony was praised for tackling complex issues including favelas and slavery.

During the seminar we screened the most relevant sections of the two ceremonies and discussed event reports for each event from the Telegraph, Financial Times, Guardian, Independent and New York Times, particularly focussing on how these marginalised groups are portrayed to an external audience. In this session we were most interested in how seminar attendees responded to the sections of the ceremonies that we screened. It was particularly enlightening to see how they responded to the commentary as we intentionally showed the ceremonies being narrated by a foreign commentator. Sydney was narrated by two Americans, and Rio by an Australian. Having seen the indigenous segment of the Sydney ceremony narrated by an indigenous man, Eric Dingo, for the Australian audience, we contrasted this with the quite frankly patronising narration this segment received from the American presenters, broadcast to an American audience. Here the narrators claimed, for example, ‘some of these people are using elevators for the first time’. We wanted to know to what extent the international understanding of these ceremonies were shaped by these comments. The answer is, obviously, hugely. While Eric Dingo’s narrative gives the performers agency and places them as people existing in contemporary society, the American coverage paints a picture of a ‘noble savage’. It is clear that the political agendas of the countries screening / discussing the ceremonies, plus the specific ideologies of newspapers and television networks, have major implications on how the ceremonies are explained and understood by international audiences.

This is an ongoing project and we are now turning our attention to the experiences of Olympic Ceremony television audiences both in the host countries and internationally. This will be timely given the forthcoming Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast, particularly as Cathy Freeman, an indigenous athlete who was the face of the Sydney Olympics, has recently been announced as one of the ambassadors of the Games.