Transient triumphalism

MUCH OF MY life is spent writing about race politics, suicide and genocide. For relief, I write about sport – but that doesn’t always work.

The love affair with sport has been a long one, from mediocre junior athletic days to some later competence as a golfer. But an excess of it has sickened the appetite, the taste diminished by having to digest so much of today’s sporting culture: the unaccountable sporting behemoths like the IOC and FIFA; crass corruption in, and of, sport by vulturine commerce; grotesque ‘celebrity’ behaviour; the flawed codes of conduct; peptides plentiful enough to harm horses; sledging that demeans the sledger; sports betting ads (nauseam); match-fixing everywhere; the winning-at-any-and-all-costs credo; the overload of events and replays; and racism alive and well, on and off the fields.

The late labour historian Ian Turner and I were working on doctorates at Australian National University in the early 1960s. Considered ‘sports poofters’, and told to go elsewhere if that’s what we wanted to study and write about, we had to wait until our careers were established in other fields before we could get away with writing about the games that provided joy, athleticism that showed the boundaries of human performance, events that created the often painful tensions of uncertain outcomes. Ian devoted himself to Australian rules football for the Australian, and I turned to golf columns for the scarcely noticeable Armidale Express.

Graduating to News Corp and the Fairfax papers, I argued passionately for a new genre of sports criticism, akin to music and literary criticism – analysis, appraisal, evaluation, quality judgment. Alas! All but one of my many pieces wound up in the weekend edition’s literary pages. The writing, claimed the editors, was too up-market for the sports fans – and so it dwelt amid Les Murray’s poems.

My oeuvre didn’t make it. Some sports historians wanted fancy theoretical perspectives and methodological chi-square correlations to make their sub-discipline respectable. Many still gathered nuts and berries on the forest floors of sport, bits and pieces of trivia signifying nothing. The journal Sporting Traditions, of which I was a founding part, began publishing materials about teenage breaststroke techniques, catgut versus nylon in tennis rackets, and the use of baseball slang in the nineteenth century. That was the early 1980s. In 2015, it carried entries on the representation of women’s gymnastics in the 1970s, football refereeing in France (1946–91) and the origins of various football clubs. Little of it means anything to me.

The best of serious criticism has come from journalists rather than from those who merely report. The Americans have always done it pretty well, with literary figures like Mark Twain, Jack London, Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner turning a hand to sport, followed by classy essayists like Red Smith, AJ Liebling, David Remnick and Joyce Carol Oates (the latter three especially brilliant on boxing), Thomas Boswell and George Plimpton. Britain has boasted insightful critics like Bernard Darwin, CLR James, Neville Cardus, Ian Wooldridge, Brian Glanville, Hugh McIlvanney, Frank Keating, John Arlott and Simon Barnes. A few of our journos offer critical insights rather than nail-biting, deep-digging, hard-fought, keenly contested, knife-edge, snatching-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory ephemera: Keith Dunstan (in particular), Richard Hinds, John Huxley, Malcolm Knox, Peter FitzSimons, Patrick Smith and two published poets, Martin Flanagan and Spiro Zavos.

In the 1990s, my colleague Doug Booth (Otago University) joined me in writing critical pieces for Inside Sport, then a coy-titty-and-glossy sports action picture magazine. (The itty-bitty polka dot bikinis have gone, but banality abounds.) ‘The Big Picture’ was our column title. Originally we suggested ‘The Serious Page’; the editor liked it initially, and then blanched when he understood the inference. A while later I was fired for reproducing in the Sydney Morning Herald an article we had written on slave labour use by the sports shoe factories, pulled at the last minute by the Inside Sport editor because he feared loss of advertising. The Herald didn’t say for which magazine it had been written but the editor asserted that ‘everyone will know’. Maybe.

Doug and I went on to write One-Eyed: A View of Australian Sport, published by Allen & Unwin in our triumphal year 2000. It confronted racism, anti-feminism, militarism, nationalism, parochialism, commercialism and ‘the Australian way of sport’. Several reviewers liked it. Our sport-history colleagues were upset: too many myths demolished, too many icons turned to straw, too many reminders of ugly history. A senior historian berated us: ‘The trouble with you two is that you don’t love sport enough.’ Dead right, mate, cobber: we love it, but not nearly enough. Colleagues pretended it was a problem pothole, to be either avoided or driven straight over without too much axle damage.

I HAVE MANY quibbles: inter alia, the asinine mantra about sport being separate from politics; the crassness of rugby union officials, as per the 1971 Springbok tour here and the even more disastrous 1981 Springbok tour to New Zealand; the unwinnable ‘war on drugs’; the coddling and swaddling of serial off-field offenders; and the brattish and boorish behaviour from those often less than talented. I can only deal with a few matters here: saturation is one to discuss; others include racism, and the conviction that sport not only maketh the man but the nation.

Rationing is self-evident in music and the visual arts: there is simply a limit to how much can be painted or composed. Sport, of whatever kind, is played so incessantly, so intensely and voluminously, so quickly and globally, so repetitively, that one hasn’t time to grasp, let alone savour, the essence of a moment in a game. Australian sports television has a curious notion of savouring: simply replay the same blocked shot, or offside, at least ten times in a row – in case you didn’t get it. Overload and too much interconnectedness overwhelms us. A would-be classic is swamped by the next flurry, fiasco or farrago, with no time or space to linger, go back for a second look, or replay as one would a Brahms symphony or a Sidney Bechet sax, with quality headphones, in the middle of the night. Overload devalues, and sport is the most devalued, commodified, generically modified, interfered with, adulterated and violated of all valued pursuits. Sportswriter Patrick Smith recently wrote that ‘in the new media age we are privy to so much sport, live from so many places around the world, that the mind becomes so cluttered with sporting moments that it is difficult to fit much more in.’

Overload is reflected in sports reporting (as opposed to journalism). Major events in mainstream sports often wind up in the six-point font statistical summaries, called The Score in most papers, or in eighty- to one hundred-word snippets of non-writing headed Sports Day. This year, 2016, a Japanese golfer won the women’s Australian Open and rated such treatment, followed by three full pages of debate about a footballer’s canine sex romp and whether the act was private or consensual. As the internet becomes the instant source of everything, so we can expect to see less and less sports analyses, fewer critical pieces, more and more syndicated, anonymous presentations of ‘facts’ jammed in among the surfeit of other ‘facts’.

Sport is, among other things, a cultural and social institution. Sport is solid, a mainstay of societal coherence and coalescence. But the very games that make up the institution are transient, ephemeral, like each day’s weather. In terms of memory, there is an inherent weakness in each sport: their very nature is present and future oriented – this afternoon’s match, next week’s, next season’s. For me, the most memorable exposition of the tenses and transience of sport is English novelist Nick Hornby’s short sketch on ‘The Agony of Being a Fan’, from The Picador Book of Sportswriting (Picador, 1997). An Arsenal supporter, Hornby concludes his pain thus:

I’ll be there when we go out of the Cup at home to Middlesbrough, say, or Manchester City. The quality of the football will be poor (we know that already, most of us), the weather foul, the environment uncomfortable at best, intimidating at worst. There will be sweet moments for all of us, but they will be swamped by the sour…and we will all be happy, in our own peculiar way, saving up for a sunny day two or three years off in the future.

In the same volume, Laura Thompson pays homage to ‘Jimmy White and his Magic Finger’, the magical, left-handed snooker player dubbed both ‘Whirlwind’ and the ‘People’s Champion’. In the 1980s and 1990s, he won almost everything except the world title. She wrote:

Those who love him – and there are many – yearn for him to win. They were thrilled when he finally learnt how to play safe, because they too were getting sick of him losing; but they never really believe that he is going to win. They believe that he will always and forever cause them to sway from bliss to agony with his deathless pots and his imbecile misses. They never really believe that the spring Bank Holiday spent in front of the green baize altar, praying for the Easter Monday ascension of Jimmy White, will find its fulfilment in the moment when he is finally crowned World Champion of snooker. They want that moment, though, almost as much as Jimmy White himself wants it. They know that if – when – it comes, it will seem as if they are sharing it with him. That is how he makes them feel.

These little extracts say it all: institutionalised and collective great expectations. We yearn for guys like White, for teams like the Rabbitohs, the Sydney Swans, and we await the sunny day next week, or next year, or when the team is finally promoted to the first division. We yearn for when and hardly ever long for then. Then most often becomes quaint, a curiosity, interesting perhaps, and a nice talking and drinking point. There isn’t much else one can do with fleeting and passing subject matter. In spite of well-established rituals, customs and values that enable a community to cohere, the paradox is that we live in a world that doesn’t like and doesn’t look at lessons of the past, especially ignominious history. ‘Ours,’ we assert, ‘is a new world.’ ‘That was then and this is now’ is the condemnatory point made by the late political analyst Tony Judt, a nice phrasing of the reality that we live in an a-historical era where memory is last year and the present is all that matters.

My interest is in last year and yesteryear as a way to better understand the present and the journey into the future. As structured activity – among ancient hunter-gatherer clans through to today’s modern masses – sport is a metaphor for many things: ceremonial rites and rituals, lore, customs, culture, history, geography, the individual and group psyche, belonging and, importantly, a sense of purpose.

ARRIVING AT MACQUARIE University in 1982, I began some serious researching and writing about such matters. I’m glad I did because I was able to teach much through the sports metaphors. The trick, if that’s what it was, was to put together as many fleeting and ephemeral moments to make something more solid, meaningful, informative, educative and, above all, memorable.

The opportunity came when Aboriginal friends told me that they would boycott the bicentennial celebrations because they had nothing to celebrate. I said they did: their sporting achievements. And so in 1988 I published a short and preliminary sketch of Aborigines in Sport (The Australian Society for Sports History), starting in the 1850s. In 1995 that became Obstacle Race: Aborigines in Sport, a large work published by UNSW Press – a sports book that wasn’t a sports book but an account of the Aboriginal experience as told through sport and its tributary metaphors.

I’m still at it, so to speak, with many articles, essays and illustrated works presenting Aboriginal endurance across the eras: the genocidal killing period that began in 1816 and ended in 1928; the protection-segregation regime that began in Queensland in 1897 and lasted across the country until the 1970s, even the 1980s in Queensland; the forcible removal of children from 1839 (in Victoria) and then across the continent until the late 1980s; the so-called assimilation period from the mid-1930s to the 1980s; and the present domain of ‘autonomy’, interrupted so rudely by ‘the intervention’ of 2007, ostensibly to end alleged child molestation in remote communities. My question has always been: how did a minority – without a single right in the panoply of values we call human rights – play sport, organised sport, in eras such as these? The obstacles have been massive.

This isn’t the place to recite the history of Aboriginal and Islander sporting achievement. Suffice it to say that they are remarkably over-represented in the stadium sports of Australian rules, rugby league, boxing, touch football, hockey and athletics, with growing numbers in soccer and rugby union. Tennis, cricket, rowing, swimming, cycling and golf have a long, long way to go. Darts is astounding, with an Aboriginal predominance in many competitions. But that requires only a pub, a board and a fleet of darts.

For all the ballyhoo of the North Queensland Cowboys and the Brisbane Broncos, of Johnathan Thurston, South Sydney’s Greg Inglis, the Swans’ Buddy Franklin and Hawthorn’s Cyril Rioli, for all their appearances on posters, calendars, promos and ads, they are commodities appropriated to make them part of ‘us’. We are very good at appropriation: we seize, even expropriate, their achievements as pure and ‘ordinary’ Australian. Occasionally we elevate the best: Mal Meninga, a South Sea Islander, as coach of the Queensland rugby league team; or Laurie Daley as coach of the New South Wales team – both in the footsteps of the outstanding Artie Beetson.

But as soon as their careers come to an end or there is a glitch in behaviour it’s over. Charlie Perkins always told me that while they’re at the top ‘they’ are ‘us’; when not, ‘they’re history’. In 1968, Lionel Rose, minus identity, was ‘our’ national hero. Later, following defeats, ill-health and booze, the papers reported that ‘Aboriginal boxer Lionel Rose today faced the magistrate…’ Despite the successes on the field, off the field nothing has changed. There’s virtually no Aboriginal or Islander people on boards of management, of councils governing sports.

Nonetheless, sport – together with dance, music, art, literature – has made strides in the visibility and dignity of Aboriginal and Islander people. Indigenous teams are allowed pre- and mid-season star-studded exhibition games. But there is no chance that an all-black side will be allowed into regular competition. Such would be apartheid (so the chant goes), and we can’t have that. What we really mean is that regular teams can no longer do without their stellar dark players.

useful connection between what we call sports history and popular sports culture? There ought to be a continuum between the two, a strong intersection. But after some fifty years of reflecting on this, and writing about it, there seems to me to be a disconnection, even a dissonance. Sport history, Down Under at least, becomes ever more introspective, examining its navel, innards and other appendages with methodologically respectable lenses, becoming more ‘professional’, more theoretical and abstruse, as it loses contact with administrators, players, journalists and Mr and Mrs Common Man. Sport has become gargantuan – in scope, spread, innovation; in pushing limits to gross extremes – to the point that there is almost no such thing as popular culture. Rather, there are dozens if not scores of popular (and less popular) cultures, each vying for more prime time, or any time at all, many becoming spectatorless at the stadium but finding a place in graveyard timeslots on Channel 777, the one dedicated to truckies and nightshift workers who must have something to watch in the
wee hours.

HAS THE ‘AUSTRALIAN way of sport’ improved since Doug Booth and I castigated it in the great Olympic year? Has sport as ‘moral education’ disappeared from the ethos of our schools, especially the private ones? Has Sir Henry Newbolt’s ‘Vitai Lampada’ – that ludicrous piece of poetic ‘philosophy’ that encourages youth to play up and play the game, especially at the Somme – been decently buried? Has drug-addled sport kicked the habits? Have sports administrators become less pompous and obnoxious? Have crowds become more respectful of visitors and ‘enemies’? Have players become more professional and less hooliganesque? Have we learnt to play less hardball, less winning-at-all-costs? Have our cricketers become less snarly and brutish, more respectful of umpires and their decisions? Have our male tennis players continued in the mannerly tradition of Frank Sedgman, Ken Rosewall, Pat Rafter? Silly questions.

Have we learnt that rebuilding stadiums at cosmic costs is no guarantee of more spectators, more revenue, more kudos, better and more efficient transport systems? (Parramatta is slated to have a 30,000-seater at a mere $300 million – before the inevitable budget blowouts.) Is more always better? Have we learnt that establishing institutes of sport are not guarantors of greater success? In eight Olympiads from 1948 to 1980, we won forty-eight gold medals or six per games; in the next eight Olympiads to 2012, we won seventy-seven of the glittering prizes, or 9.7 per event. That is very, very expensive metal, grossly more than today’s $1,100 an ounce. To what end? To be able to say that gold, gold, gold has ‘put us on the map’?

Most social institutions undergo change, reform or a withering over time. For all of us, this sporting land is an interesting case study. Apart from the tired imagery of Bondi surfies, the institutional components present us with a nice litmus test for our status and stature as a nation. For many, or most, sport represents our health, wealth, freedom, opportunity and heroism, and a willingness to integrate and embrace. It is, indeed, the ultimate advertisement for the lucky country.

For me, what matters is the nation’s maturity on many issues: our racial problems; our handling of race hatred and race vilification; our handling of human rights and the refugee questions; our endeavours for the poor, the aged, the disabled and the mentally ill; and our efforts at being the clever country, the literate country. Since sport is such a key facet of our nationhood and psyche, it is a good measure for where we are at in the growing-up stakes. Do we lose with grace? No, of course not. We outpoint that timeless American boxing phrase wherein every loss evokes the mantra that ‘we wuz robbed’. The referee, the press, the replay and third umpire technology, the lack of goalpost cameras, ‘they had an extra man on the field’, whatever – we remain robbed. But more importantly, do we win with grace? Aha!

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