An Investigation of The Australian

Passion For Sport

Christine Parker
Australian Studies: 28/11/96

"Football is life" was the phrase scrawled on the library desk when I sat down to research the Australian sporting passion. There are many reasons that explain the development and growth of this passion. Historically, the Australian image has been one of a tanned, strong and fit individual. Though the entire population is hardly composed entirely of athletes, sport plays a role in at least the hearts of most individuals. Similarly, Australia's environment is supportive of a wide variety of outdoor activities. In 1970 the Australian journalist John Hallows wrote:

One of the most attractive things about Australian life, to both Australians and foreigners, is its leisure potential. The image of eternal sun, sand, surf and space figures largely not only in the motivation of immigrants from northern Europe, but in the conceptual bases in which Australians themselves organise their attitudes" (Mercer, 1977)

Sport has developed a nationalism which has unified Australia and has helped bridge inequalities of race and gender. To look at Australia's sporting passion it is important to first trace the history of sport, which goes all the way back to the first Aborigines.

The Aborigines were the first to occupy Australia, arriving somewhere between 60,000-100,000 years ago, though the exact date is still unknown. Recreational pastimes and games were indicative of their way of life. Their environment demanded that they be physiologically fit in order to survive. Children were encouraged to participate in such activities as climbing, jumping, and running. Though these activities could be used as forms of enjoyment, they were also necessary survival skills. An adept climbing ability was important in the search for foodjust as throwing accuracy was important in hunting. Sham fights using mini weapons were a popular pastime and also good preparation for warfare for youths.

When Europeans arrived in Australia in the late 1700s, Aboriginal lifestyles and customs were dramatically altered. While Aborigines emphasised maintaining a continuity within nature, Europeans focused on expansion and change. Several Aboriginal groups who survived European invasion were forced to take on European forms of sport and leisure.

Though the first European settlement was in 1788, there were no "free settlers" until several years later. Early arrivals consisted mainly of convicts. With later arrivals of upper class Europeans, new leisurely activities were created. But, activities taught to children were those learned in England. Hunting remained constant, but new sports such as cricket, rowing and boxing were brought from the "mother country". The criminal background of much of the European population was reflected in the popularity of "blood sports". Such sports included boxing, cock fighting and kangaroo hunting. Several blood sports were banned at various times, but many would often reappear at secret venues. Gambling was one activity enjoyed quite universally. Many dice and card games were common in pubs and meeting places. More benign social activities that became common included dancing, sailing rowing and fishing.

It was during the 1820s and 1830s that water sports were officially organised and thus their popularity rose. Bathing was even considered a favorite recreation in some areas. The establishment of some of Australia's first recreatonal clubs includes boxing in 1814, horse racing in 1825, cricket in 1826, rowing in 1835, billiards and sailing in 1836, shooting in 1842, lawn bowls in 1846 and golf in 1847. During this period in Australian history, from pre 1788 to 1850, sport changed from that originally created to serve as survival means to that designed for leisure and cultural means. Society began directing itself toward more passive diversions such as cricket and horse racing rather than the more violent recreations. The bloodier events still occured, but not on such a wide spread scale.

The period from 1850 to 1890 saw a dramatic climb in population due to early discoveries of gold. Gambling, prize fighting and drinking became the favorite recreational pastimes of gold diggers. In following years, technological advances in communication and transportation had a significant impact on sport. For example, the invention of the light bulb enabled the possibility of sporting events being held at night. The use of sewing machines allowed the creation of team uniforms. Additionally, progress in transportation made overseas competition feasible. Any success in overseas sporting competitions thus boosted the national pride and confidence of the Australian population. A rise was also seen in intertown and intercolonial competition. A new game, Australian Rules, was created with characteristics of English and Australian football games, soccer and rugby. Although both soccer and rugby shared a commonality in traditional folk football, the Australian football was the first sport to be unique to Australia; there was no single game in Britain upon which this new game was modelled. An increase in competition resulted in a rise in need for the standardization of rules. Some organisations thus formed included the New South Wales Cricket Association in 1858, the Northern (Queensland) Rugby Union in 1874 and the Victorian Football Association (Australian Rules) in 1879.

It was after 1850 that contemporary characteristics of sport really began to appear. Vast spreading of sport popularity was influenced by industrialisation, immigration and technological innovation. More sports became popular and greater numbers of people participated. After the gold rushes there was more government spending, and industrialisation promoted economic growth. Since athletic success strengthened national morale, certain characteristics soon became regarded as being "Australian". Such characteristics included strength, masculinity, courage and hardiness. In the 1890's and years following, literature was one outlet that helped illustrate this link between sport and the Australian identity.

Significant women's participation in sports first occurred in the 1880's. In the 1890's several women's cricket clubs had been created. Participation was also seen in bowls clubs, bicycling and boxing.

In the 20th century during the first World War, many sports competitions were cancelled. A sportsman's Brigade was formed in which athletes fought for their "mother England". Following the end of World War I, people turned to sport and other recreational activities as an escape, to put the horrors of war behind them. It was during this time that sports for women became widely accepted. This period saw the organisation of many large scale competitions. There was also the creation of two exclusively female sports: vigoro and netball.

In 1929, even while massive economic losses from the Great Depression affected many aspects of Australian life, sport continued to thrive. Again, sport was seen as an escape, this time from harsh economic realities. Extensive Australian success in all levels of sporting competition, from local to Olympic, expanded the importance and significance of sport in Australian life.

During World War II devestating effects were seen on Australian life, sporting and otherwise. A significant dropoff was seen in sporting participation because all eligible men were going off to fight. But, immediately following the war an upsurgence was seen in sport popularity. Thousands of immigrants from numerous countries increased cultural diversity in Australia and also introduced new sports into the society. In addition to the rise in popularity of new sports, economic prosperity during this time allowed for greater leisure time available to the average Australian worker.

The period from 1949-1966 was called the "Menzies era", but was also known as Australia's "golden era" in sport. Such prolific success in world sporting events emphasized the world image of the average Australian being that of a bronzed, strong, healthy athlete. In 1956 the first Olympic Games held in the southern hemisphere took place in Melbourne. The five Olympic Games between 1950 and 1970 saw Australian athletes earning a total of 37 gold medals.

In 1972, after ever 20 years of Liberal dominance, the Labor Party came to power. This Labor Party supported expanding Australian recreational opportunities and facilities. But, it was during the 1970's that there was a decline in Australian sporting success internationally. Though there were achievements in other sports, they did not receive significant recognition. Also during this time there was a decline in participation rates and overall fitness levels of the general population. The previous image of the fit, bronzed Australian was waning. As a result, a state government campaign in Victoria entitled "Life. Be In It." encouraged people to be active and change their lifestyle. This campaign was applied to family involvement at all ages. Success in the campaign triggered a nation-wide address to the decline in fitness and participation. There were some increases in government funding, but the most significant step was the foundation of the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. This was an extensive training facility for coaches and athletes. Branches of the Institute opened in Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide. This opened the door for a resurgence of Australian sport in the 1980's. World power in athletics was slowly restored, and an increase was seen in fitness levels throughout Australia. In 1983 the win by Australia II in the America's Cup was considered one of Australia's most outstanding sporting achievements and was nearly declared a national holiday. This dramatically boosted Australian pride and unity. Further benefits to sport in the 1980's came from corporate sponsorship of various teams, individuals and competitions.

Today, sport is something that most Australians would admit is a part of their recreational lives. In Australian terms, "sport" has come to encompass everything from direct participation to loose associations with sport. In fact, it has been observed that Australians place an unusually high value on sport and leisure. In 1973 one observer noted:

The Melbourne Cup is the Australian National Day. It would be difficult to overstate its importance...I can call to mind no specialised annual day, in any country, whose approach fires the land with a conflagration of conversation and preparation, and anticipation and jubilation... (Sport in Australia, 1976)

Sport has been used as a channel of self-esteem both individually and to the nation as a whole. In some situations fervent dedication to sport has helped overcome societal class divisions. Energy was put into the support of and participation in sport rather than into class bitterness and other predjuduces. The idea was that if a person was skilled enough, they could play.

Brian Mossop characterised the context of Australians sporting passion when he said, "we are obsessed in the broadest sense, but can be grouped as devotees, fanatics, zealots and in some cases, even worshipers..." (Blood, Sweat and Tears, 1989). Sport has been called an Australian super-religion and has been described as wholesome, being the ultimate, and capable of doing no wrong (Sports, 1973). There have been numerous suggestions as to how and why this sporting obsession developed.

There are several historical reasons explaining how Australia's sporting passion originated. Forms of sport were present in Aboriginal communities but did not exist separate from daily life. There was hunting and gathering as well as ceremonious activities which all played a role in ritual life. Games played for enjoyment often provided a means of teaching skills. There were no notions of organised sport, rules or competition until well after the arrival of Europeans. The beginnings of a sports consciousness can be traced to England. When the land was first settled, the scarcity of recreational opportunities may have created a hunger for sport and leisure. One academic traced a "surging passion for sport back to the colonial era and argues that sport flourished because of the weakness of high culture in a culturally-deprived society" (The Australian Sporting Obsession, 1987). Some of the daily practices such as gaming saw participation to the highest extent. Informal sport such as hunting and fishing were an integral part of physical survival. The creation of more leisurely sporting activities such as gambling and longboat races mentally helped ease the realities of such a harsh existence. Sports thus thrived in the convict populations but were generally rougher and more violent sports such as boxing, cock-fighting and wrestling.

Sport also played a major role in the lives of colonial leaders and officers but was used as an indication of social status. Such activites included horse breeding and racing. Sport provided a means for entertainment in remote settlements where there was little else to do. Not only did sport enhance physical fitness, but it also helped boost morale and strengthen group solidarity among officers. A description of mateship by Sidney Baker involved, "..more than merely being friends, buddies or pals, but a mutual dependence, a sticking together in times of crisis whether it be in a war or a drought" and Keith Dunstan follows with how this was intricate in team activities (Sports, 1973). The officers later played a part in establishing civilian sporting initiatives. For example, through interaction of the military, the development of cricket was enhanced where matches between officers and civilians were organised and recorded. The military was responsible for the development of a permanent cricket club and playing ground in Sydney. Officers also helped establish other sports such as rowing and rugby. The later arrival of larger numbers of free settlers created an environment in which organised sport on a greater scale emerged.

In 1876 there occurred the first of Australia's significant successes, and this was in a sporting event. Edward Trickett won the sculling (rowing) championship of the world. This was evidence of Australia being the best in the world at something. The same year a combined New South Wales and Victorian cricket team beat an all-England team in Melbourne. These stimulated a nationalism and a fervor for sports which dramatically increased in following years and coincided with incresed sporting success.

Reasons for the Australian sporting passion can also be linked to the physical environment. The climate was near ideal; the sunny climate and warm seasons enabled sports to be played year round. There also were no restrictions on space, there were no shortages of suitable land for playing fields. Additionally, the population has always been largely concentrated near the coasts which offered an attraction to water sports. Large concentrations of people in major cities facilitated competition within the city as well as between cities. Though the climate alone was not responsible for the sporting passion, combined with a desire to win it was a significant contributor.

Another explanation of Australia's sporting passion has to do with the context of sporting participation. In Australian society any game is open to anyone at any time. This goes back to the idea that if a person is capable, they can play. In this way sport is not restricted to social classes, races or gender. This also allows the maximum involvement of youth. This separates Australia from many other countries in which there are class and race barriers restricting sport participation. For example, historically in the United States, blacks and women seldom got the opportunity to participate in sport. Even if there was participation it would be limited to very few events. This helps explain Australia's passion for all sports. Many other countries have sporting passion, but it is often restricted to one or two sports, for example, Canada with ice hockey and Brazil with soccer. The result of this in Australia is very significant because when class and race barriers are overcome on the playing field, they are also overcome off the field. This contributes to a sense of national pride and morale which are all tied to sport.

There are also social explanations to Australia's sporting passion. Richard Cashman has described this passion as reflecting "the immaturity of a young country...the Australian distrust of the intellectual, or the desperate search for identity and recognition" (The Australian Sporting Obsession, 1987). Historically, Australian society has been male dominated, the first Europeans were predominantly male convicts and officers. There were not very many rivaling fields of interest, so there was a vigorous pursuit of sport. These sports were used to extend male bonding and leadership while releasing masculine aggressions at the same time. This contributed to the sporting image in Australian social history. This image encompasses what Keith Dunstan describes as a "correct and manly will-to-win attitude" (Sports, 1973). Dunstan describes the Australian pioneer, an image from which early social and fervent sporting attitudes and were drawn. The outback provided a source of inspiration. Dunstan elaborates, "..the Australian pioneer- here was toughness, manliness, a never-give-in attitude" (Sports, 1973). The image of a sun tanned, resourceful and strong individual from the bush was translated and applied to the image of sporting figures. Though applied mainly to men, the role of women is not to be underestimated. There was little involvement during the colonial era of women in sport, but this changed with the further emergence of organised sport. In the decades following settlement, while women rarely succeeded in executive or political positions, they could always succeed in sport and gain widespread admiration. In contemporary public surveys for popularity, sporting heroes both men and women, have always been near the top. Jack Kramer once stated, "You're somebody in Australia if you're a sportsman. People will recognise you, in a way that you like, and they want to talk to you" (Sports, 1973).

The dominance of sport in Australian life is evident and the reasons how and why this passion developed are indeed numerous. This paper gives a few of those reasons but by no means is a complete description of the magnitude of sport and the role it plays in Australian society. The character of Australia's sporting passion has also influenced politics, literature and the media to name a few. It is this character that has added to the uniqueness of Australia in the past and will continue to add in the future.


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