The impact of Sudanese-Australian athletes on the sporting landscape

By Greg Blood. Originally published in The Roar, 1 August 2018.

Last week, Joseph Deng, a former Sudanese refugee, broke the Australian 800 metres record, set by Ralph Doubell in winning gold in at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

This feat made me reflect on the impact Sudanese athletes are now having on Australian sport.

These athletes were either born in Sudan or refugee camps in Kenya, Uganda and Egypt. Most spent the early years of their life in these camps after their family fled the brutal civil wars in Sudan. Many lost their father in the wars.

The majority of Sudanese refugees came to Australia between 2003 and 2007 and, like many previous refugees, have faced barriers. However, there are some great Sudanese success stories emerging in Australian sport and hopefully they will inspire current and future generations.

In my research, three sports seem to dominate – AFL, basketball and football.

Joseph Deng (20 years) just last week broke the long-standing 800 metres Australian and Oceania (Peter Snell 1962) records, and became first Australian to run four times under 1:45.00.

Nagmeldin ‘Peter’ Bol (24) ran for Australia at the 2016 Rio Olympics and 2017 World Championships in the 800 metres. Recently he ran 1.44.56 to be fifth on Australian all-time rankings.

Deng and Bol left Queensland and Western Australia respectively to train in Melbourne under master distance-running coach Justin Rinaldi.

The recent Sydney Swans versus North Melbourne Kangaroos match saw the match up of Aliir Aliir and Majak Daw. Daw kicked four goals but Aliir went on to kick the winning major for the Swans.Advertisement

Aliir Aliir (23) made his AFL debut for the Swans in 2016, although injury stifled his 2017 season.

Mabior Chol (21) made his debut for Richmond Tigers at the end of 2016.

Majak Daw (27) made his debut for the Kangaroos in 2013, but found it difficult to cement a permanent position in the team until 2018.

Reuben William (20) played three games for the Brisbane Lions until being delisted in 2017

Other players on AFL lists yet to debut include Hawks rookie Changkuoth Jiath (19) and Tarir Bayok (20) of the West Coast Eagles.

In the AFLW, Akec Makur Chuot (25) made her debut for Fremantle in 2017. Chuot’s story highlights how Sudanese girls were not encouraged to play sports in the refugee camps and this might explain their current lack of representation in high levels of Australian sport.

There have been numerous stories about South Sudanese basketball teams in Australia and the SBS drama series Sunshine focused on aspiring basketballers in Melbourne.Advertisement

Now, many young Sudanese Australian basketballers are being offered United States college sports scholarships. So expect to see more players come through this critical pipeline in the future.

Notable basketballers include:

Majok Deng (25) made his NBL debut for Adelaide 36ers in 2016.

Ater Majok (31) was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2011 NBA draft with the 58th overall pick but did not play for them. He has played for Australian and overseas clubs.

Majok Majok (25) played for Melbourne United in NBL 2015-2018 and signed for New Zealand Breakers in 2018.

Thon Maker (21) attended schools in the United States and was drafted tenth by Milwaukee Bucks in 2016 NBA Draft. He made his international debut for Australia this year.

Mangok Mathiang (25) made his NBA debut for Charlotte Hornets in 2017.

Football is not a sport alien to Sudanese athletes, as many played it in the refugee camps when they were growing up. Notable players include:

Kenjok ‘Kenny’ Athiu (25) debuted for Melbourne Victory in 2017.

Thomas Deng (21) made his debut for Melbourne Victory in 2015 and has represented Australia at U20 and U23 level.

Peter Deng (25) plays for Moreland Zebras FC in the Victorian Premier Leagues and his young brother Thomas plays for Melbourne Victory.

Awer Mabil (22) played for Adelaide United (2013-2015) and currently plays for FC Pacos de Ferreira in Portugal.

Abraham Majok (19) made his debut for Western Sydney Wanderers in 2017.

Ruon Tongyik (21) made his debut for Melbourne United in 2016 and transferred to Western Sydney Wanderers in 2018.

In looking into the backgrounds of these athletes, I found that an important characteristic of their sporting development was supportive schools and teachers.Advertisement

Sudanese athletes are bringing a new, positive dynamic to Australian sport. European migrants to Australia post World War II brought a new dynamic to high-profile international sports such as football, basketball and volleyball.

Finally, I look forward to Sudanese female athletes competing at high levels as they are encouraged to participate in sport.

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