Commonwealth Games’ opening ceremony celebrates Australia’s Indigenous culture

Gold Coast, Australia CNN —  

There was a nod to the conventional worldwide image of Australia: golden beaches, surfboards, emus and kangaroos.

Yet the abiding memory of the opening ceremony of the 2018 Commonwealth Games, a multi-sport event which is regarded by some as an enduring reminder of British imperialism, will be the celebration of Australia’s Indigenous population’s role in the country’s history.

Britain’s Prince Charles opened Gold Coast 2018 on behalf of his mother Queen Elizabeth II, head of the Commonwealth of countries and territories which once formed part of the British Empire.

But the two-and-a-half-hour spectacle at the Carrara Stadium, broadcast to an expected global audience of a billion people, was a reminder that the host nation’s past did not begin some 200 years ago with colonial rule.

Charles removed the message from the Queen’s Baton Relay, which has covered a distance of 230,000 kilometers over the course of 388 days, and then read out the Queen’s recognition of Australia’s rich history.

“The ancient stories told by the Indigenous people of Australia remind us that though we may be half a world away we are connected,” he read.

READ: A guide to the Commonwealth Games

Aboriginal protests

Hours before the ceremony began, the Queen’s baton relay was delayed by Indigenous activists holding a sit-in. They held aloft Australian Aboriginal flags and signs reading “Not the Queen’s Land.”

Australia’s Indigenous population is composed of mainland Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, who live in northern Queensland on the islands between Australia and Papua New Guinea.

01:23 - Source: CNN
What are the Commonwealth Games?

But on basic standards of living – from health, to education, to employment – Australia’s Indigenous population is being left far behind.

Flanked by a significant police presence, protestors were also present outside the Carrara Stadium before the Games officially got underway.

Large protests marred the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006, the last time the country hosted a sporting event on this scale, but the discord of 12 years ago has not yet been matched on the Gold Coast.

And whether the representation of Australia’s Indigenous past in such a global ceremony will help soothe the anger of those who believe an important part of the country’s history is being overlooked is a moot point.

READ: Aussie sister act bidding to be golden girls on the Gold Coast

02:12 - Source: CNN
Athletes take the CNN Commonwealth Games Quiz

Flags flying in unison

The ceremony began with cameras focusing on an Aboriginal family in the crowd. They were the relatives of Delvene Cockatoo-Collins, the man who designed the medals for these Games.

The artist’s 11-year-old niece, Isabella Graham, made visible a message on her smartphone which read “welcome to the oldest living culture on earth” – Australia’s First Nations peoples is one of the longest living civilizations on earth.

She then activated a digital countdown from 65,000, a reference to the number of years the history of Australia’s Indigenous population spans.

Heavy rain for a 10-minute period at the start lessened the impact of a blue dome of pyrotechnics which represented the planet, but the brief downpour did not dampen the mood.

There was a live segment from Surfers Paradise, the famous beach area in this part of eastern Australia, and the acclaimed William Barton played the didgeridoo.

Mau Power, the first rapper from the Torres Strait to break into the Australian music scene, performed, as did Queensland-born singer Christine Anu and pop star Delta Goodrem.

Alongside the Australian flag flew the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags and as the ceremony came to its conclusion Luther Cora, a contemporary Aboriginal artist, and his family conducted a traditional smoking ceremony.

It is a custom still widely practiced among many Indigenous Australians and involves the burning of various native plants to cleanse in the smoke and connect with good spirits.

An uncertain Royal future

READ: NZ’S Bond switches strokes for spokes

The Commonwealth is a larger entity now than it was at the Queen’s coronation in 1953.

On her accession to the throne, she also became head of state in seven of the Commonwealth’s eight members. Today she is head of state of 15 realms among 53 members, all but two of which – Mozambique and Rwanda – are countries and territories which formed part of the British Empire.

But the Royal visit Down Under has come at a time when support for the monarchy, according to the Sunday Times, has fallen to an all-time low in the country, with a recent poll putting support at retaining the British sovereign as head of state at 22%.

Last July, Labor leader Bill Shorten said the party would hold a referendum by the end of his first term, should he win the next election, on whether Australia should become a republic.

‘Friendly Games’

READ: Queen Elizabeth’s ‘secret message in a bottle’

If the Australia’s constitutional future is unclear, so to arguably is the fate of an event which is in its ninth decade.

Many of the participants in a competition often referred to as the “Friendly Games” are not Olympic all-stars, though there are significant figures competing over the next 11 days – Olympic champions Adam Peaty and Alistair Brownlee, former Olympic swimming gold medalist Chad Le Clos and track and field stars Caster Semenya and Valarie Adams, to name a few.

In this sport-obsessed country hosting the Games for a fifth time and eager to forget about the national cricket team’s ball-tampering scandal, this sporting festival should prove a welcome distraction.

More than 4,500 athletes from 71 nations will compete for 275 gold medals.

Never before at a major multi-sport event have there been the same number of men’s and women’s medal events, while Gold Coast 2018 also has the largest program of disability sport in the competition’s history.

History has been celebrated and it has already been made. Let the Games begin.