Adam Goodes lashed back when labelled an 'ape'... now he's pushing Australia to re-examine its 'mistakes'

From an ape to King Kong to Australian of the Year ... it's been an eventful few months for Adam Goodes.

Until last May, when a young girl shouted a racist insult at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the AFL star was little known outside the goldfish bowl of the peculiarly Australian brand of football.

But Goodes' furious reaction, followed by an all-too-familiar intervention by a leading establishment figure, put the Aboriginal player front and centre in his nation's tortured debate over racism and the plight of its indigenous people.

There were mixed feelings when he accepted a symbolic honour awarded on Australia Day, which marks the anniversary of the first British settlers' arrival at Sydney Cove in 1788.


For Goodes, like many in the indigenous community, the more accurate description is Survival Day or Invasion Day.

"It's a very sad day for a lot of our mob," he says.

Of Andyamathanha and Narunngga descent, Goodes also describes himself as a proud Australian who wants to focus on celebrating 40,000 years of indigenous heritage rather than railing against past injustices.

His focus is on today's racism, which he can now fight from the loftiest platform.

Goodes emphasises education through conversations.

Last May, there were plenty of those after he led his Sydney Swans team to a rare win over Collingwood at the MCG.

In the dying minutes a fan seated in the front row yelled "you're an ape" as Goodes ran past.

Incensed, the two-time AFL player of the year and title winner turned, pointed at the 13-year-old girl and told security guards: "I don't want her here. Get her out."


It was a defining moment, likened to 20 years earlier when his sporting hero, Nicky Winmar, responded to a barrage of racist taunts from an Aussie Rules crowd by lifting his shirt and pointing defiantly to his torso.

Goodes says that since his career started in 1997, he has been the "object of racism so many times that you lose count".

Widespread support for his reaction to the teenager may have highlighted improving community standards, but old habits die hard.

Only Eddie McGuire can really know what was going through his mind when he later joked that Goodes would be just the man to promote the stage version of King Kong.

McGuire, the Collingwood club president and a TV presenter, had earlier shaken hands with Goodes and assured him of the club's zero-tolerance stance on racism.

Taking a leaf from the elite athlete's playbook, the 34-year-old focuses on the positives that emerged, particularly the conversations in schools and homes about racism that might otherwise not have happened.

"Those discussions are priceless to me," he said this week. "Hopefully we'll continue to have a lot more this year."

The timing is also serendipitous for another high-profile figure, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who wants to amend the constitution to formally acknowledge Aboriginal people as the first Australians.

Although he has bipartisan political support, any change requires a referendum, and public backing.

Goodes suddenly seems well placed to help bridge divides during hand-wringing over national identity.

"It isn't about us wanting to get our land back and it's not about wanting compensation," Goodes told the Australian recently.

"It's about wanting recognition we were the first Australians."

He knows constitutional recognition will do little to ease rampant inequality and disadvantage.

Goodes, the oldest of three brothers brought up by a mother who was part of the stolen generation, already plays an active role.

He promotes awareness of domestic violence and has set up a foundation helping young indigenous people become role models.

Confronting racism is his most high-profile role.

"I'm very happy with the Australia I'm living in right now," he said. "But we've got to work on each other's mistakes."