Taking the Covers Off: Sport in Australia’s National Identity

Taking the Covers Off

On 26 September 1983, the morning Australia won the America’s Cup, Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke declared, “any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum” (Channel 9). Yet, over ninety years earlier in 1892, respected Australian poet Henry Lawson wrote disdainfully on the impact of sport within Australia, “In the land where sport is sacred, where the labourer is a god, You must pander to the people, make a hero of a clod!” (The Bulletin 1882).  Whether applauded or treated more sceptically, the ‘sacred’ held view of sport in Australia’s history has been one championed by many, particularly by sporting journalists as well as by Australian politicians who have long held the belief that “we [Australians] are and always have been, a sporting people (Ward 2010, p.6).

But to what extent is this true? Taking the Covers Off, the title of my project’s work, attempts to lift up the covers and expose the underlying meaning and representation of sport in Australia.  As is the case with a fifth day dry cricket pitch, which often breaks up considerably during the out-course of the game because of heat and pressure, cracks in the belief that Australia is truly a unique sporting nation will open up and be exposed.  This blog will reveal some of the findings made in evaluating the extent to which sport has influenced Australia’s national identity.  Whether you are an enthusiastic young ‘Kanga’ cricketer or a veteran tennis player throwing one’s final ball toss, sport in Australia holds a significant place in many Australian lives.

While the nature of this topic concerns itself with evaluating the institution of sport itself, it is important to briefly acknowledge the idea or invention, as Richard White argues, of national identity in Australia.  For White, whose book Inventing Australia serves as an important historical source on Australian history, he argues that by the turn of the twentieth century, following a push from “self-conscious nationalists”, that some sense of the Australian identity had been developed.  It is important to recognise that this sense of Australianness, as White himself attests, was based not only on physical and racial characteristics, but also social and psychological identity too, the Australian type was one who personified: “independence, manliness, a fondness of sport, egalitarianism, a dislike of mental effort, self-confidence, [and] a certain disrespect for authority (White 1981, pp. 76-77).  These characteristics are important to note, as they, particularly the notion of egalitarianism, are points of reference when arguing the extent to which sport has influenced Australian national identity.

In examining the role and place of sport itself in the Australian landscape, a chronological study of sport in Australia arguably provides the clearest method of answering this question.  It also happens to be how Australian sporting historians such as Brian Stoddart, Richard Cashman and Tony Ward have approached their individual arguments on sport in Australia.  Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that sport, and the potential for sport in Australia, began almost immediately after the nation was colonised in 1788 through the form of humans and horses.  For instance, Stoddart notes that from as early as 1802 recorded cricket matches were being played and later in 1810 horse racing events were taking place.  Accordingly, from an early period in Australian history, sport was taking place throughout the major Australian colonies.

While organised sport in the Australian colony lagged behind mother Britain for much of the first half of the nineteenth century, Cashman notes that by the turn of the twentieth century, the significance and important of sport in Australia was beginning to shine through Australian culture.  For instance, Booth and Tatz argued in One-Eyed that early success in sport at an international level helped Australia “overcome feelings of inadequacy, lack of sophistication, [and] second-ratedness” in comparison with Britain and “were immensely important in fostering a sense of shared ‘Australianness’” (Booth & Tatz 2000, p. 80)  In exemplifying this point, the ‘Bodyline’ cricket series of 1932/33 represents one example in which the sense of Australianness was strengthened (Stoddart 1979, p. 136). See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ulLj2seaPc#t=30.

While there are countless examples which paint Australian success in sport in a positive light, arguing that Australia is a unique sporting nation is more difficult to prove.  For instance, Ward carries this point further in his own assessment of sporting uniqueness in Australia and finds that after comparing Australia to other nations in sporting crowd attendances, sporting participation, and international success, Australia does not dramatically stand out from other nations.  This is an important distinction to make, as it demonstrates that though sport may be held in a high esteem in Australia, it does not necessarily mean that sport enthusiasm is uniquely Australian.

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Nicky Winmar reacts to racial abuse. Source: SMH

Moreover, one final point needs to be made on the notion of egalitarianism, which according to White is represented in Australian national identity.  However, Taking the Covers Off argues against the notion that sport is egalitarian and uses tensions in Australian society such as gender, class, ethnicity and racism to prove this point.   For instance, Stoddart argues that sport “has been the site of major sexual discrimination in Australia” and until recently has been “unquestionably men’s sport” (Stoddart 1979, p. 134).  In regards to class, Cashman notes that sport, especially in early day Australia, was distinctively separated along the lines of class (Cashman 2010, p. 126).   Lastly, racism has also been a subject of much criticism in Australia sport and is discussed by journalists such as George Megalogenis, who uses specific acts of racism in Australian Football Rules to show this.  For these reasons, Cashman (2010, p. 193) urges Australian intellectuals to take of the gloves and encourage Australian citizens to attempt to work towards a more equitable sporting Australia, which promotes a greater egalitarian Australian sporting culture.

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7 comments on “Taking the Covers Off: Sport in Australia’s National Identity

  1. Hi Christy, I enjoyed reading your blog. It’s interesting that Australia claims to distinguish itself as a sporting nation yet excludes at least half of the population, women, from the construction of its sporting identity. The few women who are ‘included’ are there because they are ‘tom boys’ or ‘larrikins’ or ‘good to look at’ rather than as female athletes. I think sport is used by government and institutions of power in Australia as a tool of social control (e.g. drink responsibly, play by the rules, etc) – so reinforcing sport as critical to Australian identity is important for that purpose.

  2. Great blog, Christy.

    It’s interesting that sport is such a fundamental element of Australian identity that it is seen to be ‘uniquely Australian.’ As you have pointed out, its intrinsic relationship to national identity has meant that discrimination on the grounds of gender, class and ethnicity has been largely ignored.

    That said, ‘consumers ‘of sport increasingly represent a much more diverse group of people than was previously the case.

  3. kyebruce2013 says:

    Well constructed and easy to follow argument. I love the fact that our former PM went out on a limb and expressed his distaste for the current predicament involving work on days of major sporting events. It seems to me that the Australian memory of sport is romanticised if anything, and like you said yourself, not uniquely Australian. I think our position as a former colony to Britain and (relatively) recent Federation will continue to render us the “underdog” in any event we are apart of – sport just seems to fit this metaphor better than others. Well done!

  4. Is Australia a unique sporting nation? I think the reality comes down from how sports is embedded in a nation of 23 million. The weirdness of Australia for a country of 23 million is how able it is to engage in a plurality of different sports to such a scale that we’re pretty damn adequate in a lot of the major codes.

    I believe personally, that this ‘ruthless’ streak employed in a variety of sport contributes greatly to our outcomes. Our country being federated in the 20th century has not a long enough lifespan to define itself via participation in war and as a result our efforts in sport must be seen as the likely substitute. (This might link to Irving’s comment above about female participation in sport being limited and how that might correlate to the same national conversation about female participation in the front lines of the military!).

    Anyways, you wrote a really nice piece that was really easy to understand and the scope was pretty nicely kept in the early stages of Australian history. BEAUTY!

  5. tomvidot says:

    This was a really interesting read Christy!! The final point you make on egalitarianism and national identity in relation to sport is really interesting. It is sad to see that racism is still a overshadowing factor in sport today, but isn’t great to there are great role models in sport today like Adam Goodes, who questions these issues of ineqaulty. Sport is something that very kid in Australia grows up being involved in, it should also be compulsory that they read this post as well. Well done!

  6. alexandra says:

    An interesting topic to pick Christy, as an avid sports fan I guess you do take for granted those underlying aspects, meaning and connections that do belong in the industry. As such an integral part of Australia’s identity it is quite shocking the ‘egalitarian’ point that you made- that sport unfortunately is still riddled with issues. Sport has however over the years as you pointed out made such a difference on the Australian life, and hopefully will continue to do so without much disdain!

  7. jonathannicoll says:

    Hi Christy,

    Sport has always played a large role in Australian history as can be seen by Bob Hawkes quote or by the Melbourne Cup, ‘the race that stops the nation’. As a child I think we were bombarded by the idea that in order to fit in you had to play some form of sport (speaking from a males perspective here). If you weren’t involved in any sort of sport you would become alienated in the playground and often targeted by bullies. So I think that the reason we identify so strongly with sport as being an Australian past time is partly because of this early bombardment. I think that as a country who was/is still struggling to find a national identity sport seemed to be the best option for many due to our success in sporting events, despite there being many other things we could associate with our national identity.

    A great read.

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