Indigenous athletes contend with numerous barriers en route to Olympic qualification

Indigenous athletes and academics say poverty, isolation, health issues, inter-generational trauma from residential schools, cultural barriers and a lack of opportunity are preventing many Indigenous athletes from competing at the Olympics.

Poverty, lack of opportunity, racism among impediments, say athletes and academics

Distance runner Rilee ManyBears from the Siksika Nation is among numerous Indigenous athletes who have encountered barriers on the road to qualifying for the Olympics. (Submitted by Rilee ManyBears)

Rilee ManyBears chuckles when he hears people say athletes training to reach the Olympics must work twice as hard as their competitors.

"In First Nations life, you've got to work three times as hard," said ManyBears, a distance runner from the Siksika Nation, a Blackfoot settlement near Calgary, who had hoped to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics before the COVID-19 pandemic. "You're going to deal with many barriers, you're going to deal with racism.

"I grew up in a household full of drugs and alcohol. My parents were in that addiction lifestyle. I had older cousins I looked up to at a young age, but they got into negative lifestyles."

Alison Desmarais, a former short-track speed skater who competed in World Cup events, is a member of the Metis Nation British Columbia. Growing up in Vanderhoof, B.C., she remembers kids from the nearby First Nations would participate on the local sports teams.

"As we got older there would be less and less of the Indigenous classmates, friends, on our teams," said Desmarais, who now lives in Calgary and hopes to transition to long-track speed skating. "I'm sure there was just so much going on [with] their home life or their reserves ... Things I just didn't have to worry about that Indigenous athletes or people do."

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Indigenous athletes and academics say poverty, isolation, health issues, inter-generational trauma from residential schools, cultural barriers and a lack of opportunity are preventing many Indigenous athletes from competing at the Olympics.

"By and large, we just don't make it to the international and Olympic levels at the same rate as privileged white people," Desmarais said.

The Canadian Olympic Committee says over 300 athletes have qualified to represent Canada at this summer's Olympics in Tokyo. The COC said it can't say how many of the athletes are Indigenous because they are not asked about their heritage, something that could change in the future.

David Shoemaker, the COC's chief executive officer, said this year staff has been asked to voluntarily self-identify to help inform policies and processes with the goal of removing barriers to diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

"The next step is to ask Team Canada athletes to do the same so that we can begin to remove barriers they may be facing," he said in a statement.

Rejection of assumed Canadian identity

Christine O'Bonsawin, an associate professor of history and Indigenous studies at the University of Victoria, said some Indigenous athletes are making the choice not to represent Canada. They prefer competing at the North American or World Indigenous Games or other all-Indigenous sports events.

"The Canadian sport model supports the assimilation of Indigenous people," said O'Bonsawin, a member of the Abenaki Nation, who played university hockey and basketball and still plays soccer at a high level.

"We are recognizing through the reconciliation process . . . more Indigenous people are identifying their citizenship as belonging to their Indigenous nation and not Canada . . . a rejection of an assumed Canadian identity."

By and large, we just don't make it to the international and Olympic levels at the same rate as privileged white people.- Alison Desmarais, short-track speed skater

The discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children on the grounds of a former Kamloops Indian residential school could further impact Indigenous athletes deciding if they want to wear a Maple Leaf.

"Canada, quite frankly, has been horrible to Indigenous people," Desmarais said. "I see why you wouldn't want to represent a nation that you feel has wronged your people and you."

Alwyn Morris, a member of the Mohawk nation in Kahnawake, is the only Indigenous Canadian to win a summer Olympic gold medal with his victory in sprint kayak at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Attracting Indigenous athletes

He believes the system has improved for Indigenous athletes since he competed and there's now an understanding Indigenous people are not just one culture.

"The support system as a whole has evolved to understand sort of what they need to do in order to attract Indigenous athletes," he said. "I don't think the pool has been tapped at all."

Shoemaker said the COC is hoping to identify more Indigenous talent.

"We offer OLY Legacy Grants, half of which are devoted to BIPOC initiatives, and we've shifted our Emerging Leaders program to focus on BIPOC leaders in Canadian sport," he said.

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ManyBears won medals at the 2014 North American Indigenous Games in Regina and the 2015 World Indigenous Games in Brazil. In 2016 he became the first Siksika Nation member to complete the Boston Marathon.

Athletes competing at an Indigenous Games have a comradery and understand each other, ManyBears said.

"They feel at home with their people," said ManyBears, whose training for Tokyo was stalled when he decided to work for the Siksika Health Services to help his community during the pandemic. "They feel spiritedly connected and celebrate and compete for fun making memories."

Entering the mainstream sports system can be difficult for Indigenous youth.

"I wouldn't say I felt racism, but I didn't feel like it was where I belonged," he said. "Once you go off the reserve it's like a whole different world."

ManyBears, who still hopes to qualify for the 2024 Olympics, dealt with substance abuse and depression following the death of his father. He attempted suicide in 2015.

"I needed a dream to heal a broken soul," he said. "I wrote in a book I wanted to compete at the Olympics someday. That suicide note turned into a goal note."

The list of Indigenous athletes who have represented Canada at the summer Olympics includes people like boxer Mary Spencer, Waneek Horn-Miller in water polo and runner Tom Longboat.

ManyBears said kids on the reserve ask him if he's going to the Olympics.

"Getting that kind of message kind of helps me," he said. "There's someone looking up to me."


Jim has written about sports in Canada for more than 40 years for The Canadian Press, CBC Sports, and Swimming Canada. He has covered eight Olympic Games and three Paralympics. He was there the night the Edmonton Oilers won their first Stanley Cup and has covered 12 Grey Cups.

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