TIC TALK Podcasts

Exploring personal experiences of inclusion

TIC TALK 1: Hamish Macdonald

A podcast with Hamish Macdonald
March 2013
Hamish Macdonald

Hamish Macdonald

Former Paralympic Athlete

Hamish Macdonald is a six time Paralympic athlete, father, advocate, administrator and recipient of numerous awards, including the Weary Dunlop Medal and the Order of Australia. Here, we track Hamish’s upbringing in Alice Springs and his journey to all parts of the globe, including a meeting with Mohammad Ali.

Transcript TIC TALK with Hamish Macdonald

Peter:

Hi! Welcome, everybody! On today’s Tic Talks we are talking to Hamish Macdonald. Hamish Macdonald is a six time Paralympic athlete. He was born in Melbourne and grew up in Alice Springs. It’s a great pleasure to talk to Hamish. He has many other life experiences as well, one of them being that he was part of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees excursion, or trip, to the Thai Cambodian border. The refugee camps are there on the Good Will Sporting Ambassadors program, and we will come to that in a second, Hamish. But first of all, you grew up in Alice Springs, and for people listening to this, Alice Springs is a very particular kind of place. What was it like being brought up in Alice Springs?

Hamish:

I guess, with the benefit of a couple of decades of hindsight, it was great. We went there as fairly young people. I turned 12, I think, the year that we arrived in Alice, and Alice is a unique place. It’s kind of a melting pot of Australians and some of Australia’s indigenous cultures, but it also had a fairly strong influx of tourism because of the natural wonders that were in and around that part of Australia. Alice was the only major center closest to sort of Ulluru and Katajuru (01:30) and all that sort of places. So for periods through the year, it was a little bit of a nothing part of the world, really. So it was as many tourists from overseas as there were locals living in town, so it was an amazing place to live. In some ways it was a typical Australian small town in that if there was something on, there were lots of different people involved in it, so whether it be the Camel Cup or the Henley-on-Todd or the local school fight or whatever was going on in sport locally, we kind of, if you were in town, you kind of got involved.

Peter:

It sounds like a very limited experience in Alice Springs, but you reckon that made it a kind of inclusive community. The diversity of that community made it quite inclusive.

Hamish:

In some ways it was, and still is. There are some challenges around the edges, and there’s lots of different divergent cultures in one place so it really is a melting pot. The other interesting thing about Alice was that it was the place where indigenous people from the outlying areas would come for services, so people who wouldn’t typically interact with each other came to town and were, kind of by default because town was the only place to come, were interacting with each other in a way that they wouldn’t typically. So, yeah, it was a melting pot, and there was a level of inclusion and a level of diversity, which is definitely unique to that part of Australia.

Peter:

And then you sort of made you way to, eventually, to Canberra, which, I would say, is not such a diverse community, but that background in a hugely diverse community would’ve stood you in good stead, I’m guessing as you came to Canberra. How did you end up in Canberra?

Hamish:

Almost by accident. On the back of support from some local people, I was made aware of the AIS that was here, and the fact that there were opportunities for athletes. And so some people had applied on my behalf in the preceding couple of years, and I was unsuccessful in gaining a scholarship. And then I was doing a bit of a gap year between the end of high school and the beginning of university and just working at a local chiropractic clinic. Someone had put an application in on my behalf, and I think he literally responded to an ad in the Australian. I got the knock back letter a couple of times in the previous couple of years and was expecting the same thing in terms of the Australian Institute of Sport. It was about two or three days until I was due to travel to Darwin to start an undergraduate degree at uni up there, and I got a call to say that there was an opportunity that exists here in Canberra.

It was a Wednesday evening, and the person who called me, we know this guy reasonably well, Chris Nan, called me and said, yeah, the guy who had this doesn’t want it, so it’s yours if you want it, but you’ve got to tell me in 24 hours. I didn’t know that he’d already spoken to my parents, and they loved the idea, so I went home from work that night and thought I had to make a rush decision. In reality, it was quite a quick decision. So one Wednesday I was packing a car with a mate, who ironically now does live and base himself here in Canberra, to travel to Darwin, and by that Friday night I was here in Canberra on residency at the AIS and trying to start my undergraduate degree in a completely different course. So it was a bit of a whirlwind, but, yeah, a choice that opened up so many other doors as a result.

Peter:

Once you arrived in Canberra here, I’m just trying to make the link between your background in Alice Springs. It must have been a good culture shock in some ways because everything in Canberra is diverse and more ordered, a completely different kind of atmosphere. You kind of came in at a time when it was a golden era for Australian sport, in the lead up to the 2000 games, so you’re lucky in that way, I guess.

Hamish:

Yeah, Canberra the place, though, like outside of the little bubble that is the AIS and what happens on this campus, Canberra’s an interesting place. It is diverse in its own way because it is the seat of government, and there’s things like, the things you’d expect in a national capital, like all the embassies and stuff. So, for want of a better word, on the surface it’s quite diverse, but it’s also quite, there’s going to be people who don’t enjoy me saying this, but Canberra can be quite clinical and cold in some ways, and I don’t just mean the weather, so for a young person arriving, and I arrived in the middle of the night, as it turned out. The flights from the center of Australia to the east coast in those days weren’t frequent, so I didn’t hit the ground in Canberra until about nine p.m. on a Friday night, I think it was. It was March, so it was turning quite cold, and as I’ve lived in the desert for many years, it was much colder than I anticipated normally in March. So it was a bit of a culture shock. And then when I arrived on campus, everyone had their stuff to do and was very busy doing it, so you had to, at least in the first instance, find your own way and make an effort to make contact with people and meet people.

It soon became apparent that everyone else was in a similar situation in that there was a larger majority of people who were in Canberra, particularly at the AIS, from a lot of places and had been boarding under similar circumstances to the way I got there. So in that way it was some kindred spirits or like souls in that regard, so it was quite a unique community within that area at that time, and I’m sure there is now today. I’m no longer on scholarship, but I guess that it would be like anywhere traveling to, you know, state university in a new city. There’s a cohort of people, that class of 94 in my case, and so you kind of have that connection in terms of time and opportunity.

Peter:

Yeah, like I mentioned to you, it was in the golden era late up to 2000, we were lucky, in a way, we were here at that time. You think, well, back to those days, leading up to the 2000 Paralympic Games in particular, there was a real buzz and excitement about what was going to happen at a home game, kind of at the peak of your powers. That stage, you were right at the forefront.

Hamish:

Yeah, I mean was about two to six years between when I arrived in Canberra and as the momentum took to the Sydney 2000 Games built, but you’re right, Pete, in that it was a lot easier to get people to say yes than no. You know, if you made a suggestion or had a recommendation about–I remember one of the first things that we did locally was we were raising money. There was a group of athletes traveling the World Championships in Germany and then very shortly after to another competition in Southeast Asia, and so it was a big, high cost year. And I was a part of a small group of local athletes on scholarship who were doing some local fundraising, and I think it was probably within weeks of me being here. We were standing in front of school kids, talking to people about where we were going, and doing fundraising and that sort of stuff. And then, I sound like an old man, but we also, on the weekends after training, we used to, myself and a guy I used to train with, used to sit in the Canberra milk van at the top of Bruce Stadium and sell milk on freezing cold days. Freezing cold Sunday mornings it started. I think in those days they did SG ball (09:38), and they did reserve grade, and then they did first grade, so we were there for–

Peter:

Very glamorous lifestyle.

Hamish:

Oh, absolutely. And these 300 cartons of milk, they were the sponsor of the football team at the time, and we would try and sell them because the local sports organisation arenas (09:56) actually would get a cut of the profit. So it was a great way to see a lot of football, which was okay for me as a teenage kid, but many a cold Sunday afternoon in Bruce Stadium, which was fine. It was prior to the refurbishment, which was on the back of the eminent games that were coming, so it was really at the top of the hill, and you’d catch the gale every time it blew.

Peter:

I thought you were going to paint this really glamorous, lifestyle leading into the 2000 games.

Hamish:

No. Yeah, yeah. It was fun, but I think, that said, there was definitely a momentum about the Paralympics and about how we were involved. And I, very quickly, for whatever reason, became a Sydney 2000 ambassador for the games, and there was about ten of us. And I got to do cool things like meet eminent Australian musicians and–

Peter:

Muhammad Ali. I was going to ask you about that.

Hamish:

I was thinking more about Mark Summer and Jimmy Barnes, but I did get to meet Muhammad Ali, which was crazy. This was post 2000. We’d done some work. We’d been involved with some charitable organizations, or not for profit organizations, centered around the Olympics, and that was a lot of fun. It was a side of the Olympics and Paralympics that I wasn’t really aware of and have become more aware of over time, but I didn’t know that every–There was a former winter Olympic athlete who could see that there probably wasn’t–there was a growing opportunity to help reinforce some of the original ideals around Olympianism and Paralympianism and what it was about in a real tangible way by picking out, by identifying some international charities and then some local charities the movement would be able to raise money for. I ran every games, winter and summer, and I think it started in 1992 in Lilyhammer. Someone will correct me. I’ve probably got my Olympic titles wrong because I’m not a winter Olympian. But it started around then, maybe 94 in Lilyhammer, so by 2000 it had gained some momentum.

It was this thing called Olympic Ad, and so, as I said, they used the momentum generated by the Olympics and some of the memorabilia around it to raise funds for an identified international charity, and it was, in the past, some United Nations ceremonies like UCEF had been involved, but typically they had also identified some local charities, so the Australia example there was the Evonne Goolagong Foundation and there was also the Asian Education Foundation, which was an Australian one. There were only a couple of others. We got asked to be involved in that indirectly, through the AIS, and that led, at the end of the 2000 games, I was actually on a holiday with some family down in the south of Canberra, looking at the Tidbinbilla Nature Forest and Nature Forest. One of the people that’s involved in this not for profit, throughout the course of 2000 couldn’t travel, had developed a middle ear infection, and I was asked if I could travel from Canberra to London for two days to attend a couple of fundraising functions, the Laureate Sports Awards, and Muhammad Ali’s birthday party. And my soul job was to carry Lenny Krayzelburg’s signed swim cap and one Antonio Samaranch’s lapel pin. And the thought at the time was it couldn’t be safely posted because there was a great fear it would get lost.

Peter:

A courier for Samaranch.

Hamish:

I was a courier for Samaranch, at least an accidental courier, on the back of someone else being ill, so that meant that I–it’s a bit like how I got to Canberra. One Friday afternoon, or Thursday afternoon I think it was, I got a phone call on my mobile, and then by that Sunday morning, I was on my way to Europe.

Peter:

Life’s about opportunities, isn’t it?
Hamish:

I’ll tell you what, I’ve had some, absolutely. I’ve led somewhat of a charmed life. And then I’m standing in a room with–I remember standing next to Michael Klim, and I’m a little bit younger than Klim, or I don’t know, but he was an established athlete, and I knew him from when he was here in Canberra, but I didn’t know him well. And I’m thinking, wow, how did I end up in this room in London with Michael Klim, but then I looked past Klim and there’s Mick Doohan and then past Mick Doohan is Ronnie Wood from the Rolling Stones, and it was kind of like being–

Peter:

Madame Tausaudes

Hamish:

Yeah, yeah! I remember at the chiropractic clinic, you had the obligatory pile of trashy magazines with who’s who photos in the back, and I felt like I was in that room where you see all those photos, but you know everyone’s at this dinner party because it’s someone’s birthday, and this is that famous person and this famous person. And I had to scratch myself and go, what the bloody hell am I doing here? I was there, so it was funny.

Peter:

Fantastic. Now, in the intro, Hamish, I mentioned, because I want to get to that and get your impressions of your work on the Thai Cambodian border at a refugee camp. How did you end up there as a Good Will Sporting Ambassador?

Hamish:

Again, I think around that time people will remember that there was an emerging political movement in Australia, and I think some of the powers that be or some of the people involved in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games could see that there was an opportunity to help change people’s understanding or affect people’s perception of what was being touted locally, politically around refugees and their status in Australia. There was an opportunity to use the international precedence of the opportunity through the Paralympics and Olympics to use sport to help change people’s perceptions of the way–

Peter:

You’re talking about the One Nation?

Hamish:

Yeah. Yeah, One Nation and there was, to gain some momentum, the reality was, to gain some momentum. I think, if I’m looking back on it, this wasn’t explicitly said by anyone, but I think that there was a concerted effort made to try and use, again, the upcoming games and some of the people that might be involved in it to help reshape or influence people’s perceptions of the refugee situation, Australia’s involvement in it, and our role that we generally play. So, the original intent was that some athletes that might be involved in the games were approached through the AIS, and director of the AIS at the time, John Bowlby, had a fair bit to do with this, I think, by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and that’s the UN agency that’s responsible for assisting displaced people from wherever to be safe, or to be repatriated, really, back to their home countries when it’s safe and if not, then seek refuge or asylum in a third country.

So this UN agency had that role and has that role, had that role within Australia, and Australia being the regional, sort of, center that it was in the southern hemisphere, there is a UN, actually, presence in Australia, quite a significant one, so all these things came together, and there were three of us that were asked to be part of this, really was a public relations exercise to try and change people’s perceptions of–I remember being asked specifically by a prying journalist, isn’t this just a public relations exercise? And he made an effort to say, yes, that’s exactly what it is. That’s precisely the purpose of this, to try and change people’s, or influence people’s perceptions of–

Peter:

Did it influence your perceptions in any way, going there?

Hamish:

Yeah, it did. I didn’t really–I mean, I don’t think I was all that political at that age. Because of where I grew up, I knew that we were exposed to many different cultures living where we lived, and so racism was never something that I bought into. One Nation, arguably, was overtly racist and some of its policies and positions, so I think that was the intent of this whole exercise was to try and redress whatever imbalance might’ve been created and to get an understanding of, not just who refugees are and why they’re in refugee situations, but just the general scope of being out of the numbers of displaced people and the way they’re directly affected. I think one of the stark realities for me was that both of these refugee camps that we visited had been in place and operational for in excess of a decade, which meant that there were young people, at that time slightly younger than I was, who had spent their whole life in that environment. That in itself was kind of hard to fathom, and without having that direct exposure to those people, and you met them and sat with them and had a meal with them, and you could see what their day to day conditions were like.

That had a profound effect, in a positive way because the people themselves were completely positive, or largely positive, and very much looking forward to whatever their new life presented them, whether it was an opportunity to be repatriated home or they were fortunate enough to seek safe haven in a different environment. And it’s funny, there is so much, even now, probably more than then, which is nearly 20 years ago now, or 15 years ago now, there’s so much of that type of activity that goes unspoken, or not in the mainstream media, and it’s always the controversial elements of that that seem to get airplay when in fact there’s so many human elements to it that are just about people wanting to live happily and safely. They’re the things that stuck out for me, and it’s certainly an opportunity for us privileged few to take that internationally and kind of spread it more widely. So we tried to keep it really simple in terms of the messaging. Unfortunately, it was probably – without bringing up old ground – it was probably demonstrative of the political situation at the time, but once we made a documentary, it didn’t get a lot of airplay. It got no airplay in terms of mainstream media in Australia, and we probably knew that as we finished the trip, so I sat with a couple of key people involved in the trip. One of them was a former AIS scholarships holder, a swimmer, who was part of the traveling group, and we thought, well, if we know that the documentary’s going nowhere, we’ve got to find some other way of getting the message out there. And to be fair, there was some media around the trip at the time, and there were some media conferences and that sort of stuff, but it was very short lived.

So I started, but unsuccessfully finished, even after all these years, an education degree, and we thought it was an opportunity to take the experiences that we had, including the videos that were made, and create an education package for schools. And we sat in a café, I think, in Canberra or Adelaide or somewhere, and we designed this workshop experience for school kids, targeting kids in years, kind of, eight to 12 was the original idea. In the end it was about years 10 and 12, and we kind of used immersion theory where we kind of recreate scenarios, and we try and give the kids who are on the workshops a sense of what a refugee camp was like and the sort of situations that people are in. So that, in itself, was a lot of fun, and I’d like to think I had an effect on people that were part of it, but it was a very small thing. But all three of us, myself, Kate Slatter, the rower, and Daniel Kowalski, the swimmer, we all thought that we needed to do more than just make a video and hope that it was shown. So everyone jumped on board with this idea, and away we went.

Peter:

Excellent. You’ve recently retired from competitive sport, Hamish, and just to finish off here, what’s in store for you the next few months?

Hamish:

That’s a good question, Pete. There’s one thing that’s going to take up my time for a little while. I’m expecting a son, a baby, in the next few days, which will be really exciting, and I’m actually committing some work in the integrity section of the Australian Sports Commission, so the focus of that work will be around child safe environments and child protection and the role that sport can continue to play in creating those environments for young people, so that’s some exciting stuff that I’ll be involved in in a short time.

Peter:

Excellent. Well, thank you very much, Hamish. We’ll conclude our Tic Talk there, and we wish you all the best in the next few days especially.

Hamish:

Thanks, Pete. Lovely to be here.