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What our athletes mean to Australians

By Ian Jobling - posted Tuesday, 15 August 2000

Throughout our history many people have considered sport to be a particularly important institution in Australian society. Some observers have gone so far as to call it a national 'religion' or 'obsession'. Certainly, over the last hundred years, many visitors and observers from overseas have commented that sport has had a predominant effect on the culture, value systems and forms of expression of Australians. For example, Richard Twopeny wrote in Town Life in Australia that, "the principal amusements of the Australians are outdoor sports of one, kind or another". The wife of a former United States ambassador to Australia wrote "living in Australia is like living in a gymnasium – there's always somebody practicing something". In the assessment of Donald Horne:

Sport to many Australians is life and the rest shadow. Sport has been the one national institution that has had no 'knockers'. To many it is considered a sign of degeneracy no to be interested in it. To play sport, or watch others and to read and talk about it is to uphold the nation and build its character. Australia's success at competitive international sport is considered an important part of its foreign policy.

Following the announcement in September 1993 that Sydney would host the Olympic Games in the Year 2000, New South Wales premier, and president of the Sydney 2000 Games Bid, John Fahey, stated:


Holding the Olympics will inspire a generation . . . When the Olympics are on – it is cartwheels around the back garden and across the lounge room floor. The Olympics in Sydney will inspire children to compete. They will be healthier, they will learn the pleasure of victory, the consolation of defeat, and in the end, we can perhaps teach our youth to take on the world and do their best. (Australian Olympian, Spring 1993)

To form an opinion about the role and place of sport in Australian society it is necessary to look at several factors. The political, economic and technological changes that occurred during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries influenced the development and direction of pastimes, games and sports. This paper will focus on sport in Australian society from a historical perspective, highlighting the role of the Olympics and of the government.

Sport and nationalism

The term "national identity" is simplistically defined as the identification of a distinctive character and assignment of this identification to a collective group of people as a whole. Bearing this in mind, what did the Olympic Games mean to colonial Australians before and following the Athens Olympics in 1896? Australians would have known little and cared less about the revived Olympic Games had they not had a 'representative' competing. He also happened to win two events. Edwin H. Flack was born in London but lived in Australia from infancy. Soon after leaving the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, where he studied Greek history, Flack became the one mile champion of New South Wales and Victoria. Flack sailed to England in 1895, where he obtained an appointment with Price, Waterhouse and Company.

Before 1896 the Olympic Games were 'no more than a few lines in a newspaper'. Australians were unaware that a fellow countryman was competing until cabled reports of Flack's victories filtered through. Following Flack's victories in the 800 and 1500 metres, his losses in the tennis singles and doubles and his courageous efforts in the race from Marathon to Athens, the Australian daily and weekly newspapers gave more coverage to Olympic Games items.

It is clear that Edwin Flack, 'The Lion of Athens', fostered nationalism: it was seen that Australian athletes could be successful in sporting competitions with countries other than Great Britain and those of her Empire.

By the 1912 Olympic Games at Stockholm there was considerable evidence that the Olympic Movement was taking root in Australia. Australia sent 21 men and two women to Stockholm and followed their efforts with much enthusiasm and optimism. There were several civic farewells for our national representatives.


Although it was already established that the 1916 Games would be in Berlin, the enthusiasm was so great the it was even mooted that Perth should host the 1916 Olympic Games to coincide with the proposed opening of the Transcontinental Railway. Clearly, the significance of the Olympic Games to national pride was manifest in the 'Perth' notion:

. . . the value to the country of such a gathering can be understood and publicity gained by an influx of athletes and visitors from all parts of the world would be the finest advertisement that Australia could receive. (Sydney Morning Herald, 12 June 1912)

Of course, it was not until 1956 that the Olympic Games were first held in Australia and the arrival of the Olympic Torch at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on 22 November brought with it a fervour of nationalism and pride in our athletes of which we are still reminded today.

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This paper is an edited extract from Chapter 12 of Institutions in Australian Society (1999), edited by John Henningham, Oxford University Press.

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About the Author

Dr Ian Jobling is an Associate Professor in the School for Human Movement Studies, director of the Centre for Olympic Studies and acting director of the Centre for Physical Activity and Sport Education at the University of Queensland.

Related Links
Australian Sports Commission
International Olympic Committee
Olympic Coordination Authority
Olympics Social Impacts Advisory Committee
Sydney Olympics museum Homepage
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