The 25 greatest Indigenous sports stars

Hatch has produced a list of 25 of the greatest Indigenous sportsmen and women for NAIDOC Week. Who gets your vote? Take our online poll.

Australia’s history of sporting prowess has long benefited from the rich influence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander athletes performing at the highest level, from boxing champs to Wimbledon winners.

And with Indigenous Australians making up only 3.3 per cent of the population, the per capita contribution of the Aboriginal community is even more impressive.

Journalist Martin Flanagan, who has been writing about Indigenous sport for four decades, reckons there are too many high achievers to say who is the all-time best.

“There are so many great aboriginal and Indigenous athletes. I would need to put a lot of thought into it,” he told Hatch, before reeling off a few favourites.

“Cathy Freeman at the 2000 Olympics, that was just enormous. She brings everything together in 60 seconds.

“Lionel Rose, he was 19 I think, 19 fighting away from home. He was fighting the best fighter Japan ever produced who won titles in three different divisions.

“Evonne Goolagong – God almighty!

“Michael Long changed the Australian game… You can argue, I believe that he changed not just Australian football but Australian sport.”

Last night at the NAIDOC Awards three-time jiu jitsu champion Shantelle Thompson was honoured as the Sportsperson of the Year, further underlining the depth of Indigenous sporting talent.

In no particular order, Hatch has listed some of the all-time greats. In doing so we had to leave out a lot that could have, or maybe should have, made the final cut.

There were so many great rugby league and AFL players we could have produced a list of them alone, not to mention a plethora of boxers.

Honourable mentions include boxers Daniel Geale, Tony Mundine, Frank Roberts and Robbie Peden, figure skater Lowanna Gibson, hurdler Kyle Vander-Kuyp, cricketer Ashleigh Gardner, AFL players David Wirrapanda, Maurice Rioli and Nicky Winmar, paralympian Amanda Fowler and rugby league stars Steve Renouf, John Ferguson, Cliff Lyons, Ron Saddler and Steve Ella.

They are but a few.

Take a look at Hatch’s Top 25 List of the greatest Indigenous sportspeople and tell us what you think in our online poll.

Who is the greatest indigenous sports star?

Cathy Freeman
Patty Mills
Anthony Mundine
Adam Goodes
Ash Barty
Nova Peris
Mark Ella
Jonathan Thurston
Tracy Barrell
Lydia Williams
Michael Long
Rohanee Cox
Marcia Ella-Duncan
Arthur Beetson
Evonne Goolagong Cawley
Samantha Riley
Patrick Johnson
Lionel Rose
Jason Gillespie
Peter Kirby
Douglas Nichols
Greg Inglis
Faith Thomas
Eric Simms
Lance Franklin
Created with QuizMaker

1) Cathy Freeman

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Freeman captured the attention of the world at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and came to epitomise the spirit behind the event, winning gold in the 400m, to add to her silver in that event from Atlanta, four years earlier. She was the first Indigenous sportsperson to win a Commonwealth Games gold medal and is the all-time sixth fastest woman in the world over 400m. Freeman was named an Australian sports legend in 2011. 

2) Patty Mills

Australia’s greatest Indigenous basketballer and most successful export to America’s prestigious NBA, Mills plays point guard for the San Antonio Spurs where he earns a reported $AU18 million a year, making him, on current earnings, Australia’s second highest paid sportsperson behind fellow basketballer Ben Simmons.

3) Anthony Mundine

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A two-time WBA super middleweight champion and IBO middleweight champion Mundine is a two-sports elite athlete, who also played rugby league for St George and Brisbane, NSW Origin and Australia U19s.

4) Adam Goodes

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Drafted to the Sydney Swans on the day of his year 12 exam, he was a dual Brownlow medalist and member of the Indigenous team of the century and represented Australia internationally. He played the most VFL/AFL games of any Indigenous player and in 2014 was named Australian of the Year. Goodes was an eloquent commentator on Indigenous issues but was targeted by idiots in the latter stage of his career.

5) Ash Barty

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The current number 1 ranked Women’s Tennis Association singles player, she recently won the French Open and is the first Australian woman to hold the no. 1 title since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1976. 

6) Nova Peris

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Part of the Women’s Hockeyroo team at the 1996 Olympic Games, she was the first aboriginal Australian to win an Olympic gold medal. Later in 1997 she switched sports to become a sprinter, and won two gold medals in the 1998 Commonwealth Games in the 200m and 4 x 100m relay. She was named Young Australian of the Year in 1997.

7) Mark Ella

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The former Wallabies captain is regarded by many industry pundits and peers as Australia’s greatest rugby union player. He and his equally talented brothers Glen and Gary, who all played the code, grew up in Sydney’s Matraville. Mark was capped 25 times by the Wallabies, captaining the team 10 times. In 1984 he scored a try in each match of Australia’s historic grand slam wins over the four Home Nations teams in Great Britain. In 2005 he was honoured as one of the inaugural five inductees into the Rugby Union Hall of Fame.

8) Jonathan Thurston

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An Australian international and Queensland State of Origin rugby league star, he is the only player to win four Dally M medals and was also awarded three Golden Boots. He won NRL premierships with Canterbury and North Queensland and has the record for most points scored in the State of Origin and most successive games played (36).

9) Tracy Barrell

Gold medal winning paralympian Tracy Barrell. (Screenshot: SBS)

A Paralympic swimmer who won two gold medals at the 1992 Barcelona games. Tracy is a strong advocate for people with disabilities and was the ambassador for Don’t Dis my Ability between 2008 and 2011.

10) Lydia Williams

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The Matildas’ goalkeeper, she currently plays for Reign FC in the NWSL in America. Since 2005 Lydia has made 81 appearances for her country, as well as winning multiple W-League awards, premierships in 2011-12, 2013-14 and W-League goalkeeper of the year for 2016-17.

11) Michael Long

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Former Aussie rules football player who was named the best player on the park in the 1993 AFL grand final. Michael, who played most of his career for Essendon, changed the game after taking a stand against racist taunting by an opposing player in 1995. It sparked a change in attitude in the sport about racism, almost eradicating it from the game. Long is now a spokesperson for Indigenous rights and anti-racism in sport.

12) Rohanee Cox

Rohanee Cox at the Beijing Olympics. (Screenshot: SBS)

Basketballer in the WNBL. She won the Eddie Gilbert Medal in 2008 and was a member of the Australian women’s squad for the 2008 Summer Olympics that collected a silver medal, the first for an Indigenous woman player. 

13) Marcia Ella-Duncan

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Marcia was the first Indigenous  athlete to get a scholarship at the Australian Institute of Sport and the first Aboriginal woman to represent Australia in netball. She was a member of the Australian team that won bronze at the 1987 World Netball Championships in Glasgow and was capped 18 times. She was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 1988 for services to the sport.

14) Arthur Beetson

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The first Indigenous captain of the Australian rugby league team and the first Indigenous coach of the team. He represented Australia and Queensland between 1964 and 1981 and played and coached at various teams, but was most remembered for his days playing for Eastern Suburbs. Arthur became the first Indigenous Australian to become captain in any sport for his country, and had 29 international caps as a player and one as coach.

15) Evonne Goolagong Cawley

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Australia’s former No. 1 tennis player and a seven time grand slam winner. She was a leading player in the 1970s and ’80s and also won seven grand slam doubles titles. She won a total of 82 single titles in her career and is ranked 12th on the women’s list of all time grand slam winners. Her last at Wimbledon in 1980 came after she became a mum and she is only the second mother in history to win at Wimbledon.

16) Samantha Riley

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The breaststroke swimmer competed in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics winning a silver and two bronze medals. She won two golds at the Commonwealth Games  in 1994 and set the world record for the 100m, leading to Swimming World Magazine naming her Female World Swimmer of the Year. 

17) Patrick Johnson

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An Olympic sprinter who was the first person of non-African ancestry to break the 10 second barrier in the 100m dash. He remains Australia’s fastest ever runner and holds the record for Oceania at 9.93 seconds.

18) Lionel Rose

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The Australian bantamweight boxer was the first Indigenous Australian to win a boxing world title when he defeated Japan’s ‘Fighting’ Harada in 1968 and became a global celebrity, feted by the likes of Elvis Presley. It also led to him being named Australian of the Year, the first Aboriginal to be honoured.

19) Jason Gillepsie

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The right-armed fast bowler was a staple of Australia’s dominant bowling attack for a decade from 1996 to 2006, partnering Glen McGrath and Shane Warne. He took 259 wickets in 71 test matches (the country’s fifth most successful bowler) and played in all three formats of the game. He bowled at 150kmph and also holds the world record knock for a night watchman, with his 201 not out against Bangladesh in 2006.

20) Peter Kirby

Paralympian Peter Kirby. (Screenshot: ABC)

A Paralympic athlete who won one gold, one silver and three bronze medals in the 1984 New York Paralympics. He was the first Indigenous Australian to win a Paralympic gold medal.

21) Douglas Nichols

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Sir Douglas Ralph Nicholls was a prominent Aboriginal Aussie rules footballer and also the first Aboriginal to be knighted in 1972. He was also appointed a knight commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 1977. Sir Douglas was regarded as the best ‘wingman’ in the VFA at the time.

22) Greg Inglis

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A Clive Churchill Award winner and Golden Boot of 2009, he is regarded as one of the greatest rugby league players Australia has produced, winning two premierships with Melbourne Storm (although the club was stripped of both) and one with South Sydney. He captained the Queensland State of Origin side and was capped for Australia 39 times.

23) Faith Thomas

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A former Australian cricketer and hockey player, in 1958 she was selected for the Australian national team, becoming the first aboriginal woman to be selected to represent Australia in sport. She is the only Indigenous woman to play test cricket for Australia.

24) Eric Simms

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Legendary rugby league player who was named fullback in the Indigenous team of the century in 2008. He won four titles with South Sydney and was the league’s leading scorer four years in a row. He still holds South Sydney club records for the most first grade career points (1,841), most first grade points in a season (265) and most goals in his first grade career (890).

25) Lance Franklin

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Regarded as the greatest AFL forward of his generation ‘Buddy’ holds the record for most career goals of any current player and is seventh on the all-time list. He has led his clubs’ yearly goalkicking tally on 11 occasions at Hawthorn and Sydney and has won two premierships, four Coleman Medals and been in the All-Australian team eight times. 


Main picture of Patty Mills (top) by Keith Allison on Flickr.