Why is sport so important in Australian culture?
by Stefan Grun on 8/08/2012
Australians like to think of themselves as sports obsessives, a nation of people who play hard, are loyal to their team and passionate about sporting endeavour. Stefan Grun looks at the background to this sense of national identity.
There are three main factors that define a culture – values, environment and reminders.
Values are those things which define behaviours the group deems are acceptable; environment is both the physical and social environments of the group; and the reminders are the stories we tell, visual reminders such as signs and symbols; and physical reminders or rituals.
View sport from these cultural perspectives and you won’t be surprised why we Aussies find it to be so important.
First let’s look at the environment. If you’ve been to the MCG to watch an AFL match, or cricket test match, you will know the power of sitting in the stands of this grand colosseum watching the gladiators do battle below. The history oozes from every nook and cranny and you can hear the ghosts of legends past regaling you of their amazing feats from summers and winters long gone. Just as it does from the stands and social clubs at any suburban or country football ground across the country.
In country towns the football and netball club is often the social heart of the town. Many old timers connect the demise of their country town with when the footy club folded and there was nowhere to go on a Saturday afternoon – sport was THE social fabric of the town. In the city, going to the footy is still a key social activity, connecting friends, families and complete strangers. Seeing a grown man passionately hug a complete stranger when their underdog team beats the premiership favourites never gets old.
How many stories of Australian folklore involve a sporting legend or sports event. Even those who know little about sport know The Don averaged a tick under 100 and was bowled for a duck in his last innings, walking from the ground with tears in his eyes. Winning the America’s Cup prompted an unofficial public holiday and almost everyone knows of a mare called Makaybe Diva who won three straight Melbourne cups, and the most visited exhibit at the Museum is still Phar Lap – 80 years since he met his tragic death on foreign shores. How many countries worship horses like we do?
The new Friday ritual is submitting your footy tips or finalising your supercoach lineup. This feeds into the Monday morning office banter which still revolves around whether your team beat mine, which has now extended to include anxious analysis of how you went in these competitions. The weekend ritual has changed slightly as our society gets busier and busier, but even in this day of the smartphone we still turn up in droves to the cathedrals of our worship, decked out in jumpers and scarves or covered in war paint – proudly showing our tribal colours for all to see. You can usually tell who’s going well in finals by the footy scarves you spot in the CBD on a Monday, even nudging from under the collars of some very expensive business suits.
What values do Australian’s admire? A lot of our values seem to be derived from our favourite sporting legends – both good and bad. Is it John Landy aborting his world record attempt to help a fallen competitor? Is it Adam Gilchrist walking when he edged a catch in a World Cup semi-final when no one else knew, even the umpire? Perhaps it’s Pat Cash forgetting the Royal Rules and stuffiness when he clambered into the stands on claiming the ultimate tennis prize at Wimbeldon? Others might note Bob Hawke’s statement that any boss sacking someone taking a sickie post America’s Cup victory would be a “bum”.
Aussie’s most look for honesty. Look how we shun our former sporting identities for their misdemeanours if they take us for fools and think we can’t see through their spin. Wayne Carey was shunned, Ricky Nixon ostracised and Jason Akermanis is now largely ignored as they pretend they’ve done nothing wrong or offended no one.
However, look how we embrace the sins and foibles of Shane Warne because he not only admits to his imperfections, but embraces them. He has built the Shane Warne brand around his larrikin personality. Matthew Johns was another prominent sporting identity who resurrected a career on the back of admitting his sins.
So much of Australian culture celebrates the rituals and symbols of sport. We embrace the stories of current and past legends and pin our hopes on the next potential saviour who will rescue our struggling team. The religion of sport in Australian life touches almost everyone.
Even our Prime Ministers recognise the power of sport to connect them to the average Aussie voter. Just think of Julia at the footy or John Howard’s off spinners. Actually, perhaps let’s remember Bob Hawke’s America’s Cup order instead – honest larrikin who loved to celebrate a sporting winner. Who doesn’t?
Along with being an AFL Field umpire and passionate sports fan and writer, Stefan Grun is a leadership development consultant specialising in the areas of effective communication, organisational development and culture change programs. With almost two decades experience in elite business and sporting environments, Stefan is passionate about transferring and sharing the lessons from one field to the other.
Previously posted on www.openforum.com.au