Seven years ago, Patty Mills told an American journalist that he flies three flags – for Australia, for the Aboriginal people, and for the Torres Strait Islanders. At the time, he was only was speaking metaphorically. But on Friday night in Tokyo, he represented all three while leading Australia’s delegation at the Olympics opening ceremony.
There was only one physical flag – the Australian standard – in Mills’s and Cate Campbell’s hands. Whispers in the athlete’s village that the basketballer might pull out the other two flags during the ceremony proved unfounded. But as Australia’s first-ever Indigenous flagbearer, Mills has taken a step forward in the nation’s troubled history, where recognition and reconciliation have been too often absent and discrimination and racism too often rife.
Wearing cultural artwork on his face mask and a traditional beaded necklace, Mills strode purposely into the arena, leading out a select contingent of the Australian athletes in Tokyo. He looked at ease, but anyone who has followed his glittering career knows all too well how important to him these two things are. Representing the three parts of his identity, and competing for the Boomers on the international stage, have together defined Mills’s life to date. The merging of the two in Tokyo was a special moment for a special athlete from Canberra.
Mills was born in 1988, to Yvonne and Benny. His mother was a member of the Stolen Generation, separated from her four older siblings while still a toddler and placed in institutional care. His father grew up in the Torres Strait; they lived there briefly as a family, on Thursday Island, before moving to Canberra when both parents landed public service jobs working on Indigenous affairs.
Growing up in the nation’s capital, Mills experienced frequent racism. “The better I got in sports,” Mills has recalled, “the worse the racism got.” But the family’s relocation proved fortuitous for sporting reasons. Benny Mills established an informal basketball club for culturally diverse youth, and his son began playing at the age of four. More than a decade later he was still playing basketball in Canberra, only by then at the Australian Institute of Sport, the nation’s basketball talent factory.
Here it is. Patty Mills, alongside Cate Campbell, just led Team Australia out at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. Mills is Australia’s first ever Indigenous flagbearer at an Olympic Games.pic.twitter.com/iB6TI57YCN
— Olgun Uluc (@OlgunUluc) July 23, 2021
From the AIS, Mills went on to play college basketball in the US. He was a late second-round NBA draft pick in 2009, and bounced around the NBA plus leagues in Australia and China before ultimately landing at the San Antonio Spurs. It was there Mills won a championship ring, in 2014, and grew into the political activist and sporting hero he is today. Each year Mills celebrates Mabo Day, 3 June, with his teammates; Eddie Mabo is Mills’s great uncle. Following the Black Lives Matter movement, he donated $1.5m to social justice causes.
He may have become an NBA star – a vital cog in the San Antonio machine for so long – but international basketball has always had particular importance for Mills. He burst onto the scene as a teenager at the 2008 Olympics, before recording the top point-scoring average in London 2012. Mills experienced heartbreak at Rio 2016, giving away the foul that cost Australia a bronze medal. Five years later, he will now lead the Boomers as they seek their first-ever Olympic podium finish.
Twenty-one years after Cathy Freeman’s iconic gold medal in Sydney – which Mills recalls watching at the time, as a budding 400m sprinter – he is one of a record 16 Indigenous athletes in the 480-odd Australian delegation in Tokyo. The Australian Olympic Committee has also appointed its first Indigenous liaison officer, former Olympian Kyle Vander-Kuyp, and went to great lengths to decorate the Australian section of the athletes’ village with Indigenous artwork. “It gave me thrills to see how much it was incorporated throughout our entire team,” Mills said on Thursday.
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These are all important steps forward for Australian sport and the country at large. Mills being the flagbearer in Tokyo will not directly lead to constitutional recognition for Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It will not end Australia’s black deaths in custody, or the systemic discrimination Indigenous Australians continue to face on a daily basis. But if this symbolism is not everything, it is not nothing either. It is something – something important.
In the parade of nations in Tokyo, with 205 flags from across the globe on display, Mills carried three into the arena: one in his hand and two in his heart. When Australia can truly embrace all three, it will be a better place.