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Australia's Cathy Freeman celebrates her 400-metre Olympic gold medal in Sydney.
Australia's Cathy Freeman celebrates her 400-metre Olympic gold medal in Sydney.

Australia is a sports-crazy nation, where even obscure events attract big crowds

While sport might achieve total bigness in many a country, no country in the world can match the from the distant southeast and which often leads the world, on a per-capita basis, in winning Olympic medals.

A story: By a process both clumsy and dull, three American reporters turned up at a firehouse in Revesby outside Sydney to watch with firemen as a lad from nearby Milperra, Ian Thorpe, swam in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The firemen had cringed at two earlier alarms, but both proved too minor - whew! - to prevent their Olympic viewing.

Excellent banter ruled the room. One fireman engaged in the innate human act of carping about the TV coverage. Another pilloried an Australian official seated in the audience as an unquestionable buffoon.

To the bewilderment of the visitors, the firemen launched into a mild argument about distance swimming. That dialogue ended when one referred to the then-27-year-old Kieren Perkins and swimming history and bellowed, "Kieren's place is secure!" The visitors marvelled, having never heard upright men in workaday jobs show such intricate knowledge of, well, swimming.

 

Look, the world pretty much has agreed that while sport might achieve total bigness in many a country, no country can match the biggie-big-bigness of sport within the captivating concoction to the distant southeast, Australia.

As the sport historian and Griffith University professor of sport management Kristine Toohey put it, "I think you could say that some countries are more passionate about particular sports. We're passionate about all sports. We're not as selective."

As the sport historian and director of the Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Richard Cashman, wrote: "Sport in Australia just might be more deeply and meaningfully cultural than in any other country."

As the Asian Cup football final between Australia and Japan is played tonight, the team known as the Socceroos might just notch a tricky double. They could snare Australia's first weighty football trophy, and they might stretch a sports-mad country even further into a sport previously not such a big deal in Australia.

Worry not. The national appetite seems capable.

What's your favourite hint of sport's presence in the Australian bloodstream? Is it that in the 1880s, as Cashman noted, somewhere between one-third and one-half of the entire population of Melbourne attended the Melbourne Cup, that horse race that stops the country every first Tuesday in November? Is it that some 57,617 people paid good money in 2010 to become members of the Collingwood club in Australian Rules Football?

Is it the presence of the influential, 30-year-old Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), whose resources the public never questions and the politicians dare not dent? Is it, as Cashman notes, the tradition of large crowds, highly unusual among humanity, for swimming festivals?

Could it be the unofficial tally of Olympic medals per capita as a reflection of passion per capita among the mere 21.5 million Australians?

After all, at Athens 2004, Australia's 49 medals ranked behind only three countries with 15, 60 and seven times its population (United States, China, Russia). At Beijing 2008, Australia's one medal for every 447,844 citizens routed all countries with populations exceeding three million.

"You don't really understand what makes the Australian nation tick unless you understand the great affection Australians have for sport," a man said in 1996.

That man was John Howard, then in the role of prime minister, thus in the role of another telltale tradition, the prime minister's XI, an annual cricket match in Canberra during which prime minister John Hawke in 1984 got his glasses smashed.

He departed but returned, knowing Australian prime ministers should beat most heads of state even if they might not want to go messing around with Barack Obama in basketball.

 

A story: Amid the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, a brilliant and inimitable Australian reporter noticed that by landmark fluke, Australia had more gold medals (two) at that stage than that Alp-blessed winter mastodon Austria (one). He decided to visit the Austria house.Greeting a woman there, he boasted of this arcane statistic, only to face retort when the woman pointed out that Austria had given the world, um, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

With the reigning Academy Award Best Actor, the Australian Russell Crowe, the reporter rejoined, "How many Oscars has he won?

When English settlers planted roots in vast Australia, Toohey said, "There wasn't a lot to do. Nothing, really." Bored silly when not hunting or hunting or, say, hunting, they initiated games. "They sort of set the place for what you do in your leisure time," she said.

As communities formed across the 19th century, Cashman said, they usually coalesced around sport. They formed jockey clubs for horse racing, then other clubs for other sports. Sport became "something that gives the community identity," he said, and with no great war, no great cause and differences in religions, it became "useful to bind those communities."

From there, mix in a heavy dose of agreeable climate, as both historians and the Socceroos captain Lucas Neill observed. From there, add the bounty of open spaces so that, as Toohey said, "Sports fields abound."

And then, for ultimate potency, blend in a little of that ever-useful perceived insecurity, however valid. Boom. "Australia is a relatively small country on the world stage," Cashman said. "It doesn't get noticed a lot and in the 19th century had quite a sense of inferiority that we were a colonised society so sport is one area Australia can make its mark internationally, something where Australia can be noticed."

Sports proliferated. "For Australians to do well at cricket, to thrash the motherland [England], was a way to prove they were OK," he said. Olympics blossomed in importance until firemen could talk swimming and so, piggybacking on that, did women's sports, getting a major shove from the 1912 Olympics, when the inaugural women's 100-metre swimming played out in the Stockholm harbour, and Sydneysider friends took the gold and silver in the form of Sarah Frances "Fanny" Durack and Wilhelmina Wylie.

A host turn came with the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, deepening the meaning, and when the Soviet Union and East Germany became Olympic monsters and Australia languished in 1976 at Montreal with zero gold medals and only the one silver in men's field hockey, that just would not do. It helped catalyse the formation of the admired AIS beginning in 1981.

Medals mounted, and with the Sydney Olympics in 2000 came another chance to demonstrate worthiness, with the enduring shine including the fervour for the aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman - some seasoned reporters found the atmosphere for her 400-metre gold the most emotional they had experienced - and the striking paucity of empty seats no matter how obscure the venue.

"When the Olympics were staged here, Australians were prepared to go and watch anything even if there was no Australian and even if they knew not very much about the sport," Cashman said. "People still remember that time as just a very unusual time, a time that we wish we could bottle."

 

A story: During the Melbourne Games of 1956, the spirit of sport so infused the populace that a 17-year-old boy fretted over some of the rancour between some of the countries, especially the infamous water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union. He saw it as dangerous to the ideal.

Sitting at his desk in his room in his family's Melbourne apartment, he concocted a plan with words and drawings whereby the Olympic athletes, having entered the stadium separated by nationalities for the Opening Ceremonies, would enter in one cohesive blob for the Closing Ceremonies. He stuffed this plan in an envelope, walked it carefully to the Olympic offices and slid it through the mail slot.

When officials cottoned to his idea, it became Olympic tradition even if it took three more decades to identify that the lad had been John Ian Wing, the son of Chinese immigrants. By Sydney 2000, Wing sat in the stadium as a special invitee.

 

"We grow up on it," Neill said of sport in the run-up to the Asian Cup final. "A lot of our cult heroes are sporting people ... We're also a very proud nation. We like to wear our colours and sing our anthem with a lot of pride, and every time we go out we go out to win and to do our country justice."

Note the word "justice." It can come on a pitch, of course, even though football did not sprout in Australia until after World War II, Toohey said, when migrants brought their versions from Italy and Greece and Yugoslavia among other lands.

So if you still can picture Australia as a land with parents driving kids to swimming pools at wee hours - akin to Canada with its hockey moms - football has joined the widening that Cashman depicts by noting Australia's new-found prowess at gymnastics. And then an ever-demanding press keeps fanning the expectation that keeps fanning the ever-demanding press, Toohey notes.

Of course, football has whooshed forward of late even if it remains second-tier in Australian interest. Australia left Oceania's sparseness for Asia's thickness. Australia withstood the knockout round of the 2006 World Cup in Germany and loosed croons of Waltzing Matilda in pubs all over creation (including one beside Covent Garden in London). Australia stalled at the 2007 Asian Cup for a "lesson," as Neill put it. Australia had that debacle against Germany at South Africa 2010, then steadied somewhat.

As the generation of players steering all of this teeters toward football dotage, they covet a milestone prize. "You don't get many chances as a player to win things," he said, assuring that Australia's organised, well-funded system has "a continuing conveyer belt of players" coming forward, but that, "The only problem is you're not getting to see them because" the older players "won't give up our spots."

"We wish Japan good luck," he said, "because that's the way we are and that's the way we are as Australians. But we take great pleasure in winning as well."

Really? Who could tell?

 

A story: Among the numerous fetching elements of the Sydney Olympics, there shone the volunteers who wowed visitors with by reaching new-found rungs of helpful. One such volunteer pretty much epitomised the Games and maybe even all Australian sport even though he garnered only a small news item in latter newspaper pages.

According to the reports, Kenneth Parker of Sydney, aged 59, persisted in his volunteer role for the Games even after learning he had terminal cancer. He yearned to contribute to the towering moment, and apparently went about his assignment driving a bus for one of the Brazilian teams.

During the second week of the Games, he passed away, and his family buried him in the blue-and-white volunteer uniform of the Games. He was, after all, Australian.

 

cculpepper@thenational.ae

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