An Australian powerlifting body says it will conduct an “internal restructure” after a boycott by some athletes, including top-ranked Patrick Morrison, over a social media post by its president which received an influx of racist comments and imagery.
Last week the president of Global Powerlifting Committee’s Australian arm, Markos Markopoulos, used Facebook to condemn the “spineless executives” of an Australian cheese brand for changing its name from “Coon” to “Cheer” in response to a campaign stating the product name was offensive to Indigenous Australians.
“During last week, Coon cheese announced they were changing the name of their cheese due to public outcry,” read part of Markopoulos’s lengthy Facebook post which has since been deleted.
“The cheese was named after the founder of the company. A minority group of trouble makers made a fuss and this piss weak company dropped the name. We buy 1 or 2 blocks of Coon every week. Never again.”
Morrison, a Kokatha, Wirangu and Wiradjuri man living in South Australia, says he texted Markopoulos directly to check whether he had fully understood the nature of his post but, having felt “he just wasn’t open to dialogue”, took his own stance on his Instagram page.
“This post had a lot of support, which isn’t surprising given the culture of casual racism in Australia …” Morrison wrote. “A saying that I like in this sport is ‘lifters need to vote with their feet’. So here I am voting with my feet, choosing to no longer compete in any comp that is affiliated with Markos Markopoulos.”
Morrison’s decision, which will significantly affect his lifting career, has been liked by more than 900 people, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous and many of whom have followed his lead. It also prompted racist abuse, including one commenter who Photoshopped an image of the original cheese brand onto a photo of Morrison.
“I woke up to it and it was pretty upsetting, it was very offensive,” Morrison told Guardian Australia. “It’s a bit shocking when you decide to make a stand and say ‘I’m not going to stand by this, I’m not going to be quiet and I’m going to make sure people know this isn’t OK’, and then someone comes along and degrades me.”
Markopoulos removed the post and replaced it with an apology after another boycotting competitor, Yindjibarndi and Pinikura woman Zoe Raymond, lodged a formal complaint to the GPC Australia board.
“I unreservedly apologise to anyone and everyone I hurt,” Markopolous wrote in his second post. “I’m not a bad guy, anyone that knows me is aware of that.”
GPC Australia issued a statement on Tuesday saying it “prides itself on being an inclusive federation”.
“One that promotes diversity in all forms. We are proud of our members who have made a commitment to ensure our culture of high standards is maintained,” the statement read.
“In light of recent commentary on social media, GPC Australia wishes to express its most sincere apology and offer an opportunity to anyone offended or affected to contact us so we can discuss further.
“As an organisation, we will continue to self-educate and develop all our delegates as they are ambassadors of the community first and foremost. GPC Australia will be conducting an internal restructure of its organisation. We are also recruiting new roles which we believe will help grow our sport.”
Guardian Australia has been unsuccessful in attempts to contact Markopolous directly.
Raymond, who has been an active member of GPC Australia for years, said the post had affected many in the lifting community.
“The response and apology just didn’t feel like it fit the impact of what the post actually did to the community,” Raymond said. “I’ve received hundreds of comments and messages from people either following suit or voicing their support.
“The only negativity I’ve felt is the reaction from those at the top. At this moment, it’s hard to think of what would make me want to go back. I have a lot of fear about being in the powerlifting community right now, as I’m unsure what some people think of me speaking up.
“So, at this point, I will be changing federations and if, in the future, I see positive changes from the president himself, I may consider going back.”
Others holding a similar view include clients of Indigenous powerlifting coach Aaron Scafi.
“At least half of my 10-12 lifters on my behalf say that they don’t want to compete because they know I’m Aboriginal-Australian,” Scafi said. “But I still push athletes to the federation because I don’t want to hold them back.
“I try to separate the person who said the words from the federation he runs. The majority of people wanted him to apologise more sincerely than what he has. Indigenous – and non-Indigenous – people say education is best, but how many times can we keep going with this education when it’s been happening for years?”