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Sport: the great Australian double standard

By Saul Eslake - posted Monday, 26 September 2005

There is something uncomfortably reminiscent of the former East Germany about the way in which Australia holds up success in sport as somehow indicative of the superiority of our way of life: and we pay a price for the fact we do not regard success in other fields as similarly worthy of support, encouragement or pride.

Let me say straight up, since if I do not it will inevitably be presumed otherwise, that I do not dislike sport. Well, golf bores me senseless, and I’m in a way proud of the fact that I’ve lived in Melbourne for over 22 years without once having been to a horse race. But I do like cricket and (Australian rules) football. And indeed one of my fondest dreams is that during my lifetime we will actually have a truly national football competition, one in which every state is represented and that I will see a Tasmanian team play in an AFL final series.

Nor am I opposed to the public funding of sport. There is a clear economic case for the expenditure of public money on encouraging participation in sport. Apart from the health benefits that accrue from regular exercise, participating in sports teaches the benefits of persistence and team work, the importance of rules and fair play, and (desirably) the capacity to lose with good grace. Even for those who are not active participants, sport plays a vital role in bringing together Australians who might otherwise have little in common.


Nonetheless, the fact I like (watching) some sports as much as any other Australian (male), and that I readily acknowledge the positive role which sport plays in the lives of Australians, does not prevent me from observing that there is a Great Australian Double Standard at the heart of our national identity.

It is that the pursuit of excellence, the nurturing of talent (at public expense) and the recognition and financial rewards that accompany success are all applauded in the context of sport in Australia, but viewed with disdain in virtually every other field. Sport is one of only three socially acceptable ways to become rich in this country - the others being through popular entertainment or gambling.

Or take the word “elite”. For an Australian to say of someone that he or she is an elite athlete or sportsperson is, in every context, intended and taken as a complement. But to say, in any other context, that someone is part of an “elite” or is an “elitist” is to aver that he or she is part of a privileged minority, out of touch with “mains(h)tream Aus(h)trayans” (sic), and that his or her opinions on a subject are of no account whatsoever.

Recall the extraordinary outburst of wailing and gnashing of teeth which occurred after the 1976 Montreal Olympics, when Australia not only failed to win any gold medals, but - ignominy piled upon shame! - won fewer medals of any type than New Zealand.

After the ensuing outcry the Fraser Government established the Australian Institute of Sport, on which it and its successors have lavished ample amounts of public funds, and to which young people identified as having the potential to be Olympic champions are sent at public expense - with no requirement to make any repayment to the public purse of the cost of their maintenance and training via a HECS-type arrangement - as are the mere mortals who attend universities.

This year’s Commonwealth Budget provides an additional $41 million over four years “to support elite sport” (in what other context does the Howard Government explicitly support “elite” anything?). It also provides a further $11 million so Australian athletes can spend time training in Northern Italy. (What other instructional institutions have been assisted with taxpayers’ money to establish an overseas campus?)


Contrast this with the reaction to the revelation two years ago that Australia had not one of the top 100 universities in the world. Rupert Murdoch and the Governor of the Reserve Bank, Ian Macfarlane, expressed concern about this less than gold medal-winning performance. But was there a national outcry? Was there a public inquiry? Was there an immediate injection of funds into our university system? No, there was a collective national yawn.

In fact, last year the number of Australians attending universities declined for only the second time in 50 years. To the best of my knowledge no-one in government or business has thought this worthy of comment.

Every year Interbrand produces a list of the top 100 global brands. For each of the past five years, it has been topped by Coca-Cola, Microsoft, IBM and GE, in that order. Brands are the result of creativity and innovation. And brands are valuable: that’s why anti-corporate “activists” like Naomi Klein campaign against them. The top four global brands are valued at between $US67.5 billion and US$47 billion.

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Article edited by Eliza Brown.
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This is an edited extract of an address given to The Royal Society of Tasmania, at the University of Tasmania, September 6, 2005.

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About the Author

Saul Eslake is a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Tasmania.

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