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A SPORTING LIFE!
Sport to many Australians is life and the rest a shadow.
-Donald Horne: The Lucky Country
When International Olympic Committee President, Juan Antonio Samaranch, announced (on 24 September 1993) that the year 2000 Olympic Games would be held in Sydney, he endorsed the IOC decision by acknowledging Australia’s passion for and commitment to sport as “a way of life”.
In his provocative book Waltzing Materialism (1978) - a cultural analysis of “attitudes that have shaped Australia” - Jonathon King admits that “to Australians, sport is not just something [we] play in our spare time, but is the medium by which [we] have to prove ourselves to the rest of the world”. It was an element of social life that often drew comment from visitors. English writer D.H.Lawrence (1885-1930), when describing Australians in the 1920s, observed that we “play sports as if [our] lives depend on it”, but prior to that the great novelist Anthony Trollope, visiting his son in the antipodes in the 1870s, had described sport in Australia as appearing to be “a national necessity”.
Certainly we seem to believe that sporting success can help define our place in the world and illustrate who we are. Some years ago, in an article that attracted a lot of attention but little critical comment, I described ‘Australia’s national sport’ as "winning". Few have disagreed with that assessment. Indeed many social commentators (e.g. Horne, McGregor, Stoddart, McKay et al.) have claimed the Australian “passion for sport”, as Trollope described it, as obsessive, as a perceived defining characteristic of national identity, and as perhaps an explanation of “a sporting lifestyle”. Brian Stoddart (1988) admits that, like it or not, “sport has been the central agency in the creation of an Australian sense of community and identity”.
The national commitment to the Sydney Games and the athletes who will represent Australia is continuing proof that these observations and that of Donald Horne (“…sport to many Australians is life…”) are true. Indeed, critic Keith Dunstan’s 1973 claim that sport in Australia “is the ultimate super religion” still has an accepted credibility in the wider community.
This preoccupation with sport can be explained in historical terms. Given the European colonisation of Australia, it was natural that ‘home’ practices, including sport, would be transferred to the antipodes.
Anglo-Celtic settlement ensured that British games were dominant and preferred, although some ethnic groups (e.g. Germans) were able to retain some of their pastimes within their community. The Roman poet, Horace (65-8 BC), was right when he observed:
They change the sky, but not their ways,
Those who rush across the seas.
However, there was a conscious effort to develop “an entire British community…a new Britannia” in the colonies of Australia, and British sports and games helped to illustrate the success of this transposition. The editor of the South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register, George Stevensen, acknowledged the success of this in Adelaide, South Australia, when he confirmed in an 1845 editorial that: “English society, manners, language and habits have been successfully transferred” (Register, 9 August 1845). Sport was one of those ‘habits’.
Francis Dutton, describing South Australia ten years after its foundation for a British audience, noted with satisfaction that “all the British sports are kept up with much spirit in the colony; hunting, racing and…cricket are in the proper seasons much patronised” (Dutton 1846).
Hunting and racing were the favoured leisure pursuits of the colonial gentry as they were of the upper class in Britain. The distinctive uniform, imported pack and horses defined a group of people who sought to be regarded as the leaders of “the new Britannia in the antipodes”. Edwin Blackmore, an early master of the Adelaide Hunt, claimed that “South Australia was the first of the Australian colonies to possess a pack of hounds…” (Register, 5 September 1870), and while it is true that the hunt was “fully established” there by the early 1840s, there were hunt clubs in the older colonies that preceded the Adelaide Hunt. Thomas George Gregson, gentleman farmer of Jericho in Tasmania, possessed “a fine pack” of hounds in 1828 and “with his scarlet coat and good hunter…cuts no despicable figure…”(cited in Von Stieglitz 1960). In New South Wales John Piper was riding with the Bathurst Hunt in the 1830s, and Bonwick in his Discovery and Settlement of Port Phillip describes a “hunt with hounds…and 15 redcoats…” in 1839 (cited in Daly 1986).
Describing the sports and pastimes of the British in 1869, the Earl of Wilton wrote: “let but a few Englishmen assemble in any quarter of the globe and it may safely be predicted that a horse race would be organized…”. Within a year of settlement, the first ‘Adelaide Races’ were held on the extensive plains west of the new town in South Australia. While horse racing claimed broad-based community support in the early settlement period, particularly as it provided opportunities for the ‘lower orders’ to gamble, the fact that race meetings were organised as mid week occasions indicated the intention of the colonial gentry to keep the sport exclusive. Indeed recent historical research indicates “there is very little evidence that an egalitarian sporting culture was forged during the foundation years of white settlement in Australia” (Adair and Vamplew 1997).
In New South Wales, officers of the 73rd Regiment, who had been involved in horse racing in India, organised a racing carnival in Sydney in 1810. A course was established in Hyde Park and most of the horses involved in the three day meet were owned (and ridden) by the officers.
Military and naval officers stationed in colonial Australia were instrumental in establishing other sports. The “First Australian Regatta” was organised in Sydney on 28 April 1827 by Captains Rous and Sterling of HMS Rainbow and HMS Success. The Australian of 25 July, deploring some of the more brutal English sports and pastimes, explained that it was military men “who...kept the sport [of cock fighting] alive…” (cited in Cashman 1995).
Anthony Trollope wrote in 1864 that cricket was the game by which Englishmen might be recognised in every corner of the earth. “Where a score or so of our sons are found, there is found cricket…”. Cricket assumed a real importance in Australia during the nineteenth century. It was perceived to be the representative game of English mores. Success by colonial teams against ‘home’ counties and English representative teams also was proof that Australians had not degenerated in the antipodean sun or through "the convict stain", a fear often expressed in contemporary newspapers.
While cricket ‘for all’ was encouraged, there were other sports which were exclusive and definitive of the upper classes. ‘Genteel’ Australians imitated ‘genteel’ Britons in their leisure activities. Croquet was described as “a most infectious” amusement among the colonial gentry in the 1860s. Expensive sets of balls and mallets were imported from England and few of the ‘great houses’ of the upper classes did not possess a carefully manicured lawn for the sport-one of the few to encourage participation of women.
When tennis became the fashion in Britain in the late 1870s, colonial society adopted the English game and converted the croquet lawn to a court. The colonial ‘gentry’ played golf and lacrosse, went yachting and imported polo ponies from India. Women were included in the golf and ‘boating’, played hockey instead of lacrosse, and rode to the hunt. The homes of the upper classes boasted rooms for billiards and dancing. They formed exclusive clubs, imported expensive equipment and dressed for the occasion to display their status. In such a manner they strove to be English provincial gentry in the antipodes by engaging in symbolic elite activities.
Sport, though, was not the province of the upper class in early Australia. Richard Twopeny, who settled in South Australia and wrote of Town Life in Australia in 1883, observed that “no class was too poor to play” and added “…the more ample reward attaching to labour out here leaves the colonist more leisure…and this leisure he devotes to play”.
The tavern provided the initial venue for sport for the ‘common man’ in colonial Australia as it had done in Britain. The hotels offered impromptu sporting entertainment for a male drinking and gambling clientele. The warm climate encouraged drinking, and the inns were real community centres offering recreation and fellowship, although only for a male clientele. Inn keepers acted as entrepreneurs for sporting events, played host to embryo sporting clubs and gave cover to early bookmakers.
Middle class settlers were critical of the sports and pastimes of the working class, associated as they were with drinking and gambling, and campaigned actively for “rational recreation”. Organised team games, like cricket and football, flourished under their sponsorship, being justified for their communal values and ethical rules. Cricket, however, was considered “the game of games” and “must take pride of place”, argued Twopeny “because all classes and ages are interested in it…Cricket is the colonial carriere ouverte aux talents” (Twopeny 1883). It was even advocated as an ideal game for the Indigenous peoples, a playful way of teaching white values to Australian Aboriginals.
Developments in the twentieth century
By the time Gordon Inglis published his Sport and Pastime in Australia (1912) many of these sports had been organised into structured, community competitions reflecting local identification and support. The more casual sports, like skittles, were “a thing of the past” as were the more brutal activities like cock fighting and bare knuckle boxing, but there was no doubting Trollope’s comment about Australians’ devotion to their sports, or D.H.Lawrence’s observation that they played “as if their lives depended on it”. By the turn of the century, a visitor to Australia could attest that “the principal amusements of the colonists [were] outdoor sports of one kind or another” (cited in Greenwood 1955).
Inglis admitted that sport occupied “a prominent place in Australian life” and that representative athletes were beginning to succeed in the international arenas. He explained this in terms of British origins, “a perfect climate”, a favourable standard of life and increased leisure time, especially for the working man. Professor Anderson Stuart, Dean of the Medical School at Sydney University, supported Inglis but added another explanation: that the immigrants to Australia had been “drawn from an adventurous lot” and that the qualities that contributed to their risk taking conduced to success in sport.
Australians certainly were successful in international sport. The country claimed its first Olympic victor when Edwin Flack won both the 800 and 1500 metres in Athens in 1896. Edward Trickett, though, was Australia’s first world champion, having beaten sculler James Sadler in England in 1876. There were others-Freddy Lane, Frank Beaurepaire, Andrew Charlton and Fanny Durack in swimming, Norman Brookes in tennis. Numerous cricketers had international reputations, and the ‘tests’ against England confirmed their status and Australia’s growing confidence in its overall sporting prowess in the games that ‘mattered’.
Although linked with New Zealand as Australasia for the early Davis Cup tennis competitions, success against both the British and Americans (1907-1911) boosted antipodean confidence, especially in 1911 when the Americans were beaten 5-0. International sporting success continued as the century progressed: Bobby Pearce and Mervyn Wood in the single sculls at the Olympic Games (1928, 1932, 1948), Jack Crawford winning the Wimbledon tennis title in 1933. Clare Dennis won gold in swimming at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and Marjorie Jackson and Shirley Strickland were successful at the Games in Helsinki in 1952. Walter Lindrum was champion of the world in billiards from 1932 to 1950 and Don Bradman “the world’s best cricketer”.
In the two decades of the fifties and sixties Australia competed in nineteen Davis Cup finals and won fifteen of them. When the Olympic Games were held in Melbourne in 1956 Australia claimed thirteen golds, four in athletics and eight in swimming. This was the era of the ‘golden girls’ including Betty Cuthbert and Dawn Fraser. When, in 1962, Sports Illustrated judged the three leading nations in each of forty sports, Australia ranked sixth out of thirty-four nations. When scores were weighted on a per capita basis, Australia was placed first, and American sports writer Herbert Warren Wind concluded that it was “a land inundated with athletes”. Australia basked in the limelight, enjoying the reputation of a sporting nation.
That ended in the sixties when other countries, particularly in the Eastern Bloc, recognised the value of sporting success, and developed structural systems to support athletic talent. After winning eight gold medals at the Munich Olympics in 1972, the Games of Montreal in 1976 produced none. Dubbed the "Lucky Country" by Donald Horne in the sixties, the country seemed to be running out of luck.
When Australians were not winning in the international sporting arenas (the seventies), the Government was forced by public pressure to match the efforts of other countries to maintain an expectation that by now had become part of the national ethos. The Australian Institute of Sport was established in Canberra in 1981 and was followed by State Institutes in the years following. Talent identification programs and elite athlete support at the so-called ‘gold medal factories’ have reversed the losing trend, and Australia has once more secured winners in the international arena. Government initiatives now seek actively to ensure that Australia’s national sport is winning, and the population seems prepared to pay the cost of that success. However, there are some reservations about the current program and the aftermath of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.
Conclusion: A sporting life?
In his anthology of contemporary Australian writing (Sporting Declaration, 1996) Manfred Jurgensen asserts that “it is difficult to overestimate the importance of sport in the establishment of an Australian cultural identity”, but the question has to be asked: is the lifestyle an active sporting one? Certainly ‘sportuguese’ seems to be the lingua franca of the people-we even use the word ‘sport’ as a slang term of endearment, interchangeable with ‘mate’! One of our most significant public holidays celebrates a Melbourne horse race, and we seem preoccupied with the results of our national sporting representatives.
Our vicarious identification with successful elite Australian athletes has given them hero/heroine status, such that a christian name is enough to identify them (e.g. Dawn Fraser, Cathy Freeman, Kieran Perkins).
However, while there is a belief in the sport obsession and its centrality in defining the Australian character, active involvement is a myth. Sports participation nowadays is essentially reserved for the young and aspiring. There is still a problem of women’s involvement, some feminists declaring the domain to be a site of male hegemony and sexism (Bryson, 1987). This era of commodified global sport and TV entertainment encourages watching and discourages the dabbler, giving preference (and rewards) to the elite performer.
“Sports participation is less obviously an Australian trait.” (Vamplew and Stoddart 1994). Player registrations have been decreasing for decades and the Federal Government has created programs to encourage active involvement in playful (as against competitive, elite determining) sport. The Active Australia program is a current example. Physical Education has been termed “in a crisis state” in Australian schools (Crowley Report) and few youngsters are being taught the basic maturation skills that can contribute to or encourage an active lifestyle. Physical activity surveys indicate that a sizeable proportion of Australians exercise neither long enough nor sufficiently vigorously to maintain a reasonable level of fitness.
One frequently asked question in Australia is: “After 2000, what?” The Olympics are over and have been successfully staged. Hopefully the emphasis in sport and recreation will be directed to assisting those, other than elite athletes, who could give veracity to the statement “an active, sporting lifestyle”.
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