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Olympics and the cultural cringe

By Sasha Uzunov - posted Friday, 3 August 2012


Our adult Australian Olympic athletes, who are old enough to have children or fight in a war, are encouraged by pop psychologists to find that inner child: they cry, reach for a hug from mummy and daddy in the viewing stands or over celebrate or exaggerate their patriotism. But why is it our sports commentators are afraid to find their inner true Australian?

You have to admire American sports commentators for being proud of their culture: their stubborn use of American English terms and their refusal to follow the pack, unlike their Australian counterparts. You simply have to love the Yank defiance. The Olympics are a classic example of this.

The sports commentary convention accepted by most around the English-speaking world is that terms specifically associated with a particular sport are used to describe actions, activities, plays or player positions peculiar to that sport. However, the brash, brave Americans love to tear up convention, thumb their noses and do it their own way, in their own style, just like U.S. tennis player Serena Williams' distinctive fashion sense.

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For instance, American commentators have in the past referred to a Soccer (Association Football) "goalkeeper" as a "goaltender" (an ice hockey term); a "sending-off" of a player as an "ejection"; "extra time" as "overtime." 

Other American terms that have crept into the Australian sports vocabulary include "turnover" to denote loss of possession in Australian Rules Football and Rugby League; and "road game" has replaced "away game." We have two big name Australian sports broadcasters, Eddie McGuire of the Nine Network and Bruce McAvaney of the Seven Network, both decorated with our nation's highest medal for patriotism, The Order of Australia, who seem too afraid to use Australian English. 

Eddie, ironically a staunch Australian patriot and republican, in the 1980s tried but failed to popularise Gridiron terms such as "Quarterback" into Australian Rules Football. However, he has managed to successfully slip in the American "Three-peat" for a "hatrick" of wins. 

To the best of my knowledge I do not recall legendary American commentators Howard Cossell or Al Michaels referring to a "fight" between players during an American Football (Gridiron) game as a "blue" or a "donnybrook." So I cannot understand why both Eddie and Bruce feel the need to sound more American than the Americans. However, thankfully, I haven't heard Australian commentators call an ambush, surprise, sneaky attack as a "Pearl Harbor Job", as American professional wrestling commentators do. Perhaps there is a feint light at the end of the tunnel.

The Americans should be praised for breaking the sports commentary convention as it also acts as an act of liberation, which their Australian colleagues have for reasons unknown, perhaps feeling of inferiority in their own culture and language, not grasped with both hands. Perhaps it is the dreaded cultural cringe - a concept first identified by famous Australian poet Henry Lawson - the need for overseas acceptance.

An interesting parallel with the cultural cringe is the Eurovision Song contest. More and more European countries have their entry songs sung in English, not their native languages. The French still remain defiant. I would love to hear a Ukrainian singer sing in Ukrainian for a change.

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The Olympic event of Basketball, a sport invented by Dr James Naismith, originally from Canada then a part of the British empire, but developed in the United States, has its own terms such as ‘ally-oop’ and ‘slam dunk’ of which there are no Australian English equivalents. However, my question is this why don't Australian Basketball commentators use the terms "loss of possession" instead of "turnover" and why call it "dee-fens" instead of "de-fence?" What's wrong with "extra time" instead of "overtime?"

All-time great Australian Basketballer Andrew Gaze proudly bleeds green and gold and carried the flag for Australia at 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. He wrote: "There is no greater honour in sport than to lead your nation at the Olympic Games." Andrew - dude, homes, buddy, bro, cuz, mate, cobber - that sentiment seems to be missing from your 2012 London Olympics commentary.

The French are fiercely proud of their language and culture. They use the word "egalite" (equality) to denote the score of 40-all in tennis, which funnily enough English language commentators refer to as deuce, another French word which means two, but to denote in tennis that a two point gap is needed to win the game being played. This is absolutely hilarious when you listen to the umpire say the score during the French Tennis Open tournament in Paris. I say "Viva La France" French sports commentators, Liberte, egalite (deuce), fraternite.

No doubt many of you have enjoyed watching the "Tour De France" rather than the "Tour of France" bicycle event on television.

My plea to Eddie McGuire, Bruce McAvaney and Andrew Gaze please, please, pretty please, find that inner Australian. Don't be afraid to score a touchdown, I mean points, with your own people. You have over 21 million Aussies "rooting" for you...oops I meant, "barracking" for you...(Rooting is an American term meaning supporting)...Silly me to make such a mistake.

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About the Author

Sasha Uzunov graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia, in 1991. He enlisted in the Australian Regular Army as a soldier in 1995 and was allocated to infantry. He served two peacekeeping tours in East Timor (1999 and 2001). In 2002 he returned to civilian life as a photo journalist and film maker and has worked in The Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. His documentary film Timor Tour of Duty made its international debut in New York in October 2009. He blogs at Team Uzunov.

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