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What 'We are a sporting nation' means to me

By Brian Holden - posted Thursday, 9 August 2012

"In Australia, in order to be a properly accredited member of society, with human rights and so on, you've got to either play sport or watch sport." John Clark in the recent ABC TV feature Sporting Nation

Sports day was compulsory at school - and I hated it. It was my time to feel to be a failure. If a ball was heading my way, I knew that I would drop it - and I did. In a race I knew that I would come last - and I did. Most would feel good about being Australian when they heard those words from Clark. As would be expected from my non-competitive personality, I was one person who did not warm to what Clark was claiming.

I once heard somewhere that daydreaming was the narcotic of the unsuccessful. Since then I have observed through my cynical eye that an obsession with soccer is the narcotic of an East Londoner with a mind-deadening job - but without the imagination to escape into a daydream. Feeling to be going nowhere, he craves stimulation and to be part of a bigger whole. Those 'hymns' from the stands and voiced by thousands are an astonishing example of potentially explosive group-think. But, to what degree is watching sport a narcotic for us? Is the proportion of keen sports watchers (as distinct from participators) a measure of the intellectual shallowness of the mass of a society?


It has even been said with apparent pride that sport in this country is a religion. While we hold back from labelling our world record holders as gods, we associate them with physical phenomena or impressive technology. The earliest I can remember was the Lithgow Flash back in 1952. There is a swimmer at these current games labelled The Missile. Poor Missile. The speculation as to the reason that he missed the gold was that his fingers touched the wall at the wrong angle. Both he and the winner were exactly equal on the day, and yet one is elated with the outcome and the other (in the words of his Channel 9 interviewer) "was dealt a cruel blow". This is not sport. This is a game of tossing dice.

Leading up to the event, high profile people in our sporting circles were making statements such as: "We aim to finish in the top five of nations" and "We are aiming for 10 gold medals". How could we aim for anything without the power to convince our competitors to hold back in their efforts to beat us? So why talk such rubbish? The point of the rubbish is that rather than waiting for the truth to emerge, the speculations are injected into the mass-mentality prior to the events. Then the masses can feel good about our sports persons' capabilities to be world-beaters before the actual outcome has a chance to blow the fantasy up.

Competition is supposed to be a mentally healthy pursuit. It might be for an Ian Thorpe who has advertisers seeking to put money into his hands, but for those who are beaten by 0.01 of a second into obscurity, it can't be too mentally healthy. Try to imagine yourself mindlessly swimming for hours every day up and down a 50 meter pool for years and gain nothing more than a paid trip to London. Is this what by far the best mind in the animal kingdom should be doing when almost every fish can swim faster and never tire of it?

How many potential gold medal winners are herding yaks in the Himalayas? We will never know - and it is because we don't know, that international competition proves nothing about any nation's 'superiority'. My skinny little porter in Nepal carried a pack that I could not lift off the ground and he slept with only a piece of plastic between him and the ground while I was on a thick mattress and wrapped in high-tech gear (while still too cold to sleep). Nepal is one nation which has no need to enter any international competition to prove anything.

But, if having a passionate 'bonding' to a local Rugby League team or having eyes glued to the coverage of the Olympics is a diversion from the daily struggle at hand, then is that so bad? It is if it diverts our attention from where it should be.

I have noticed that the brand-name Speedo is prominent at the London games. That was one Australian brand-name which went on to have a high world profile in sporting apparel. It no longer is ours and not identified with Australia in the slightest. We have no equivalent of Switzerland's Nestlé , Hoffmann La Roche and Omega. Switzerland is a tiny country with little in natural resources and a population about a third of our own. Obviously Switzerland has got its priorities sorted out more maturely than what we have.


I have also noticed that Indonesia is almost absent from the games compared to Australia which has 200 million less people. I spent some time in Borneo where the heat was so oppressive that I woke from a fitful night already feeling too tired to face the day. So, how much is our relative international sporting success due to our climate? Also, playing sport is encouraged when we have a relatively healthy population due to there being plenty of food and a first-rate health service. For this we can be thankful for the natural resources provided by a continent inhabited by only 22 million people which allows us to cruise along without having to use much innovative thought.

We are relatively successful in sport because circumstances have placed us in a relatively advantageous position. All we have achieved is what any society in the same circumstance would be expected to achieve. Nevertheless, we don't do well on reality checks. Even before the games wind-up, the talk in the Australian camp is of come-backs and re-groupings. The great lie that we are telling ourselves is that our competitors will tread water while we prepare to return to swimming glory.

It won't happen. Our swimming glory is about to go the way of our tennis glory - leaving us competent at sports such as rugby and cricket that the larger world knows nothing about. We ignore the fact that every year some nation produces a Cadel Evans or a Black Caviar, and when we get a world-beater, it just happens to be our turn within the community of wealthy nations. Our media goes gaga over statistical outcomes.

In writing this negative piece I do not feel to be a killjoy. This wonderful world offers a vast range of enjoyable physical activities and enjoyable passive interests to choose from that are not corrupted by the commercial and political cultivation of the tribalism within us.

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About the Author

Brian Holden has been retired since 1988. He advises that if you can keep physically and mentally active, retirement can be the best time of your life.

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