Peter Bol brings Australians light in dark times despite 800m heartache

Peter Bol is a man of his word. He is also a man for these times. As he had promised, the first Australian to reach an 800m final at the Olympics since 1968 led from the front on Wednesday night. Bol was not going to be left wondering.

The 27-year-old went early and he went hard, knowing that Kenyan duo Emmanuel Korir and Ferguson Rotich would benefit from a slow start. In the end, Bol’s legs fell just short – he struggled to stay with Korir, Rotich and Poland’s Patryk Dobek as they lifted the pace in the final stretch. If there was an Olympic 700m race, Bol would have secured gold – but the final 100m dash cost him a spot on the Tokyo 2020 podium. Fourth was an immensely creditable result.

The outpouring of support for Bol on social media in the past 24 hours, and particularly after his race on Wednesday, underscored the inspiration he has offered the Australian public. “I didn’t know if I was going to win, but I knew one thing for certain – that the whole of Australia was watching,” he told Channel Seven. “That carried me on.”

At a time of division and rancour, with Sydney and Brisbane in lockdown and fresh Covid concerns in Melbourne and Perth, Bol offered light. His courageous semi-final victory on Sunday made him an instant household name – a profile elevated further by his performance three days later. “To Australia I’m thankful,” he continued. “We’re just human at the end of the day. We inspired the whole nation – that’s the goal.”

The joy Bol’s Olympic journey brought to Australia was a potent demonstration of the raw power of sport. There are few things more superficially simple than athletes running very fast over various distances. But amid our pandemic turmoil, Bol’s courage, his beaming smile, his dream to go where no Australian had for five decades, was nothing less than captivating. At a time when Australians are turning against our governments and each other – as we endure a farcical vaccine rollout and policy missteps at all levels – Bol’s enthusiasm was a powerful tonic.

But sport also holds up a mirror to society. It reflects our hopes and dreams, and our deepest shortcomings.

Bol was born in Sudan, to Sudanese and South Sudanese parents. The family fled violence to Egypt, and then migrated to Australia. But while Bol’s personal journey is important – he has spoken of the pride he holds in his dual identities – it is only one part of him. As fellow South Sudanese Australian Nyadol Nyuon wrote so powerfully this week, Bol’s athletic achievements should stand on their own – we do not interrogate so closely the journeys of white Australian athletes. We should be able to appreciate Bol as a remarkable man and athlete – distinct from and inclusive of his journey to this point.

The misreporting of Bol’s story only served to highlight this point – a desire for the story that Australia wanted, not the tale that reflected the truth. An error on Wikipedia that Bol had spent time in Egypt in a refugee camp (he had not) was repeated like gospel. “From refugee camp to the Olympics” is a powerful story. But when it is not true, it is offensive to an athlete whose achievements deserve telling in their own terms.

It is also no small irony that Australians celebrates Bol’s successes at a time of bipartisan support for border policies hostile to immigrants and refugees. For every Bol – who has arrived in Australia and flourished – there are those we don’t let in, those we lock up offshore, and those we subject to discrimination in daily life.

As the broadcaster, former soccer player and human rights advocate Craig Foster tweeted ahead of the Olympics, in relation to Olyroos captain Thomas Deng: “The story of the refugee who makes his or her way in Australian society through sport, or other fields allows us to cleanse our conscience of what we are committing to others without Thomas’s gifts.” Bol’s story, like that of Deng, raises important and troubling questions for Australia about the nation’s approach to immigration, multiculturalism and diversity.

There is no doubt Bol will be back. He only took up the sport a decade ago – he continues to improve. With the Paris Games just three years away, his aspiration of an Olympic gold remains firmly insight.

“We are a nation of champions, we are courageous,” he added, deep in the bowels of the Olympic Stadium, sweat still dripping off him. “We came here and did our thing at the same time. We can produce champions just like they can, we’re all humans at the end of the day. I respect the Kenyans, but I don’t fear them.”

On Wednesday, Bol offered a poignant reminder for all Australians during this time of uncertainty. The way things are is not the way they have to be. Just as Bol hopes to go better, because he believes that he can be a champion, Australia and Australians can do better, too. We are, as Bol put it so aptly, all humans at the end of the day. That truth can be empowering – if we want it to be.