Many Australians have little trouble
naming their most memorable football final. For me, it was the 1992
Australian Football League Grand Final,
between West Coast and Geelong.
We were still living in Tokyo, but
preparing to make our big move to Melbourne. NHK television, the Japanese
equivalent of our ABC, announced that it would broadcast the match live on
one of its satellite channels.
“This is the game our boys will be
playing when they’re bigger,” I told my wife. “We have to watch.”
Born in New Zealand, I had been raised on
the heroics of the national rugby side, the
All Blacks. I had also spent a
couple of years working as a reporter on newspapers in the British West
Midlands, and this experience had turned me into a big soccer fan, with a
particular enthusiasm for West Bromwich Albion.
But Australian rules football made as
much sense to me as sumo wrestling had when I first arrived in Tokyo.
Certainly, it bore a definite relationship to football as I knew it - just
as sumo was akin to Western-style wrestling - but it was also sufficiently
different to make me feel as though I were watching through some kind of
It was one of the untidiest sports I had
ever witnessed. There seemed no natural rhythm to the game, and no rules to
worry about: offside, forward passes, punching and bouncing the ball and
just about anything else seemed acceptable. The umpire was almost
irrelevant, except to thump the ball into the ground now and again, or to
hurl it backwards over his head.
Through the wonders of Japanese stereo
technology, we had our choice of two commentaries: in Japanese, by a man who
struggled to explain the intricacies of the onfield manoeuvres, and the
original English-language commentary, which assumed complete knowledge of
My wife gave up after a couple of
minutes. Our two sons - then aged four and three - gave no indication of
being budding Jason Dunstalls or Gary Abletts; I lasted about 30 minutes,
before deciding that unravelling this enigma of the mysterious Occident
could await our arrival in Melbourne.
I may not have understood the rules of
the game, but there was no mistaking the enthusiasm and commitment of the
enormous crowd cramming the Melbourne
Cricket Ground. Indeed, it is often said that for Australians sport is
our religion, and many commentators have pointed to the central role that
sport has played in the development of our nation. In a largely secular
land, sport is often seen as playing a spiritual role, allowing Australians
a chance to devote their energies and passions into something that
transcends their mundane daily lives.
Australian-born academic and China expert
returned from Boston to write his book
The Australians, in which he commented:
Melbourne at a great Australian ritual I savour one of the most mysterious
of all Down Under’s contradictions: 80,000 people hunch on benches as at
church, except that they are half-naked under a blazing sun, as they watch a
distant ballet of white on green, eleven Australians against eleven West
Indians, all wearing long white pants. It is a Test Match. The Melbourne
Cricket Ground is in the heart of the city—where a cathedral was located in
medieval cities….Tension and reverence fill the stadium as the game goes on
for four days, six hours a day. This is Melbourne with its mind on the job;
this is Melbourne at worship….These pagans have found a God, a surprising
one. The earnestness, excitement and sympathy that the Australian seldom
expresses in daily social communication turn up on this hot afternoon at the
MCG. Bottled-up emotions are brought to an almost religious pitch in
watching the banging of willow against leather. Having found a God in
top-level sport, the pagans are as tame as mice.
But wait a minute. Passion for sport
flourishes everywhere. When the Socceroos journeyed to Teheran in 1997 for a
World Cup soccer qualifier they played before more than 100,000 fervent
Iranian soccer fans, in a passionately religious nation. Every country,
religious or otherwise, has its emotional sports fans.
Yet sport undeniably does have an
important role in Australian culture. So many people play and follow so many
different outdoor activities, and Australia, for a relatively small country,
is so amazingly successful at such a variety of sports, that trends in sport
can play a significant role in shaping our lives and our society.
While writing this book, I came across a
quote from US tennis great Arthur Ashe, reprinted in
Character is Everything, a penetrating examination of ethics in
sport by Russell W.
Gough, an American professor of philosophy and ethics. The words came
from Ashe’s autobiography,
Days of Grace:
Sports can teach you so much about yourself, your emotions and character,
how to be resolute in moments of crisis and how to fight back from the brink
of defeat. In this respect, the lessons of sports cannot be duplicated
easily; you quickly discover your limits but you can also build
self-confidence and a positive sense of yourself. Never think of yourself as
being above sports.
I skimmed dozens of Australian sporting
autobiographies, hoping to find a similar quote to illustrate this chapter.
I came upon many expressions of the great qualities of mateship that had
developed from playing together, but little about the transcendent qualities
of the game itself. Perhaps our sports personalities (or their ghostwriters)
are not as reflective as some of their overseas counterparts. Yet I believe
that, if challenged, they would agree with Ashe. Sport develops character.
In 1983, I left Tokyo, where I had been
living for seven years, and moved to Yamagata prefecture, a mountainous
region in the north of Japan. I hoped to accumulate enough interesting
experiences to write an amusing travel book in the style of Paul Theroux or
I chose Yamagata because it was the site
of some of Japan’s holiest mountains, known as Dewa Sanzan, and I had
spiritual yearnings, which I write about in some depth in Chapter 8. In
addition, I had been studying aikido, one of the Japanese martial arts, and
had just achieved the rank of shodan – first-level black belt. In
Yamagata lived a famous teacher,
Rinjiro Shirata, who had trained before the war with
aikido’s founder. Then aged 72, Shirata-sensei was one of the last
surviving teachers from that era, and I was eager to take the chance to
train under him.
Aikido teaches a rhythmic form of
self-defence, based on the body’s natural movements. Participants practise
the same wave-like moves repeatedly until they become second nature - so
engrained that it becomes all but impossible not to do those moves in
the required circumstances. But it also teaches character - notably
self-discipline, perseverance, duty and humility - though I found that
Japanese notions of character formation are sometimes different from our
I had started my aikido training in the
beginners’ class at Tokyo’s
honbu dojo (head
training centre). But I wanted to practise more intensively, so sought out a
dojo nearer my home. I found one in Otsuka, just a five-minute ride
from my flat, on the
Toden, Tokyo’s last remaining tramline. I turned
up one snowy winter’s morning, wearing a thick red windcheater.
“Don’t ever come here dressed in red,”
snarled the elderly dojo head. “Men don’t wear bright colours. Go
home and change.”
He told me to report the next day for
early-morning training. But for a couple of weeks I was not allowed to
train; instead I was expected to kneel at the edge of the training mat and
watch the others. Only then, having apparently decided that I possessed
sufficient character, did he actually let me join.
When I arrived in Yamagata I was quickly
welcomed into the aikido class. But as a newcomer I was placed in the
beginners’ group, even though I already had my black belt. It was another
As a teacher of “original” aikido,
Shirata-sensei attracted students from around Japan. Often they had
been learning for many years, and possessed high-level black belts. But they
all got placed straight into the beginners’ class (and during my short stay
there several never returned after the initial lesson).
Australia has one particular sporting
prize that is centred on character: the Brownlow Medal, awarded annually
since 1924 to the best and fairest football player of the year. I
doubt that there are many countries where the most esteemed award to the top
player in the national sport is for fairness. It is a tribute to the basic
sense of decency that underpins Australian society, and the annual Brownlow
awards ceremony commands a huge nationwide television audience.
Yet such is the sense of moral ambiguity
infecting our culture nowadays that - perhaps inevitably - there have been
moves to change the Brownlow. In 1994, the AFL laws review panel recommended
that the fairness element be removed, so that the medal would go simply to
the best player. Thus, suspension for bad conduct during the season would
not be a bar to winning.
A commentator declared in The Age:
“It appears a sensible step. Any player suspended for a few weeks during the
season is hardly likely to have indulged in anything that a few former
winners have not tried a few times over the years.”
But there was a public outcry, and an
opinion survey showed a majority against any change. The AFL was forced to
back down. The Age quoted a League official: “My only comment is that
it’s important for fathers and mothers who have children playing football to
tell their sons to aim for the ‘best and fairest’.” Notch up a victory for
common sense and decency.
But in 1997 came more controversy. St
Kilda’s Robert Harvey won the Brownlow, despite polling one vote fewer than
Chris Grant of the Western Bulldogs. Grant had received a week’s suspension
during the season for striking another player, rendering him ineligible for
It was the first time such a dilemma had
arisen, and at the awards ceremony several League officials made a point of
congratulating Grant first. There was even some jeering when Harvey received
the medal. Harvey himself declared that, “In a way, it’s a hollow victory.”
Yet he won the award fairly, and in the
ensuing media furore numerous commentators and retired football players
backed him. It reflected the high regard for the Brownlow in our society. It
was a second - albeit, slightly wobbly - win for common sense, and for the
traditional rules that glue us together as a community.
But in the midst of the controversy came
a decidedly chill moment. Newspapers reported that the Western Bulldogs had
considered legal action over the award, and The Age quoted a Bulldogs
official as saying, “We’ve looked at that [legal action] and we’ve
decided to stay within the rules.” (My italics.)
Think about that statement: “We’ve
decided to stay within the rules.”
Has our society really come to a point
where we can decide whether or not to stay within the rules that govern us?
Of course, the rich and powerful have always had access to lawyers,
accountants and other professionals who have worked to keep them at the
elevated levels to which they feel entitled. It sometimes seems that the
richer you are the less tax you need to pay. But at least this has been
achieved while staying within the rules.
The point, clearly, is that when we are
able to choose to follow the rules we can, with equal logic, choose not to
follow them. The rules, in fact, are no longer rules, but mere guidelines,
or suggestions, or, at best, traditions. Raw power is what determines the
outcome. Such is the logical outcome in a society which no longer follows
Similar issues came to the fore earlier
in 1997. Veteran Carlton star Greg “Diesel” Williams, a two-time Brownlow
winner, received a nine-match suspension for pushing an umpire, one of the
most serious of all on-field offences. His club decided to go outside the
internal AFL disciplinary system and appeal to the courts.
With Williams thought likely to retire at
the end of 1997, many commentators felt Carlton’s motive was really to keep
the appeals process going for as long as possible so their star could play
out the season. It was a move that was condemned: by the AFL, by many in the
media and even by Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, who labelled it “an abuse
of the system”. And, certainly, sport in this country would enter a period
of farce if every disciplinary ruling was lengthily appealed to the courts.
In the end, the AFL tribunal’s verdict was upheld.
Australian rules football dates back more
than 100 years. Thanks to its traditions and strong community roots, the
sport has been able to resist many of the challenges thrown up by our
morally ambivalent society.
I am less optimistic that it will resist
another great challenge: big business.
The primary change is cable television.
Whole channels now are devoted to sport, and these channels need content.
So, international media magnates are spending hugely for the rights to
broadcast sports. In some cases, they are taking over whole sporting
leagues: nationally, such as with Australian rugby league, or even
internationally, as with rugby union.
These events are broadcast around the
world, to viewers with short attention spans and an aggressive trigger
finger on the remote control. Such spectators often know little about the
traditions of the particular sporting league they are watching, and in some
cases do not even know the rules of the game. They switch vacantly from
Italian soccer to American football to Thai kickboxing to French tennis to
Brazilian motor racing to Canadian golf to Australian triathlon. They want
action. Often what they are after is violent action.
Even on free-to-air television we have
plenty to choose from, and this, naturally, influences the sports we follow
and enjoy. When we arrived in Melbourne in 1993 I had notions of selecting
one AFL club as my own regular team and taking our sons to watch it play
But now that our boys are old enough to
enjoy following sports, they have just minimal interest in football. For a
while, their game was basketball, and they became experts on the American NBA.
They sometimes appeared to know more about Michael Jordan than they did
about any local football player.
Indeed, to hold the attention of viewers
like myself and my kids, even free-to-air television increasingly highlights
aggressive confrontation. Replays of football matches feature all the hard
plays and violence. Channel Seven, promoting its coverage of the 1998
Australian Open tennis tournament, announced that one of its commentators
would be “bad boy” tennis star John McEnroe, and showed repeated shots of
him in a racket-smashing tantrum. To advertise the match between local hero
Pat Rafter and American Jeff Tarango it screened continual promos showing
Tarango screaming “Shut up” at an umpire.
Of course, there has always been violence
in sport. Perhaps sport is nothing more than a continuation of war by other
means. Here is Manning Clark, in one of the volumes of his
A History of Australia, writing about football’s 19th-century
That fierce thirst for
blood which they [the working classes] had inherited from their ancestors
was now satisfied by the game of Australian football. Modern civilisation
had found an answer to the human craving for skill, excitement and cruelty.
The footballer, it was said, had murder in his heart. The spectators found
both entertainment and fulfilment of their wild lust for violence and their
desire to satisfy their baser passions in barracking the participants in the
new blood sport. They polluted the air with their oaths, their obscenities,
and their gift for anatomical wit to the great scandal of those who did not
believe the playgrounds of Victoria should be contaminated with anything
unfit for the eyes and ears of their mothers and their sisters.
When I was growing up in New Zealand, in
the 1950s and 1960s, one of the highlights of life was an All Blacks tour of
the British Isles. It galvanised the whole country. For the couple of months
that it lasted it was the dominant topic of conversation. The newspapers
were full of reports. Boys picked up tour itineraries at petrol stations,
filled in all the results and made jokes about the names of some of the
opposing teams: Munster, East Glamorgan, Llanelli. We carried these
itineraries in our pockets, and at school we would pull them out to settle
arguments about the scores. Many men stayed up all Saturday night to listen
to radio transmissions of the matches.
The All Blacks seldom lost, so the news
was, typically, good. In fact, the newspapers, despite their huge squads of
reporters, made sure the news was good. They simply avoided reports of
renowned All Black got expelled
from the team during a British tour. It was clear that he had severely
breached some rules, but what exactly had happened was a mystery. The
newspapers didn’t say. It was only much later, and very slowly, that reports
filtered out about the mayhem he had been causing off the field, including -
so I was told, when I was a young reporter - punching a fan who came to the tour bus looking for autographs.
Most people probably agree that the media
“protected” us too much in those days from learning about sporting
aggression on and off the field. There has been a natural reaction against
this. But it is, surely, hard to contend that we have not now swung too far
the opposite way. In our open society it sometimes seems the news - even
sports news - has to be bloody. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is the television
news producer’s motto.
I do not know where to draw the line, but
I believe the television networks are treading dangerously when they
increase so sharply the levels of violence they screen, even if they are
doing nothing more than showing us something that has always existed. Of
course, they will attract viewers by screening aggression. We are drawn to
such images, just as we were drawn to increasingly explicit shots of
Princess Diana. And still we wanted more.
Previously there was a natural
understanding that humans, being fallible, were subject to temptation, and
that television broadcasters, as responsible members of society, needed to
show restraint. Increasingly, anything goes. Parents are left to fend for
It is little wonder that at my kids’
sports matches I sometimes hear: “I’m glad my boy doesn’t want to play
football. It’s far too rough.”
But as cable-television money pours into
sport, the chances are that we are going to see more sporting violence, not
less. The nature of many of our sports will change, too. But am I not right
in thinking that fans are becoming weary of competitors whose main focus is
When I was a teenager, it seemed that
most of the world’s top middle- and long-distance runners - Peter Snell,
Baillie and many more - came from New Zealand (at least that’s how it
seemed to us in New Zealand). And not just from New Zealand, but from the
western suburbs of Auckland, where I lived. I would sometimes see them
running down the local streets, men with leg muscles of iron who powered
themselves along in enormous strides and never seemed to tire. The famous
Arthur Lydiard was coach
to most of them, and his kids went to my secondary school, where naturally
they topped all the school athletics tourneys.
Snell. I remember when he broke Herb Elliott’s world mile record, in
1962, on my 13th birthday. I was in my bedroom, listening to the race on an
ancient radio which had huge brown knobs and a dial with the name of every
New Zealand broadcasting station printed on it, and can still feel the
excitement generated in our house when I rushed downstairs to tell the news
to my parents and grandparents, who were playing Scrabble in the living room
after a small family birthday celebration.
A minor industry developed in books by
and about all the runners. Like many of my school friends, I used to read
them all, and tried to copy the techniques: sweaty street jogs one night;
punishing sprints the next; long, hilly runs at the weekend. None of it
seemed to do me any good.
I recall the hilarity, in 1963, when our
papers reported that a new book about New Zealand running achievements,
called Lap of Honour, had been seized by Australian customs for
inspection because its title aroused suspicions of lewd content. For some
reason, in those naive days many in New Zealand regarded Australia as a bit
of a cultural and social backwater compared to our own perceived refinement
In any case, it was well-known that the
runners made huge financial sacrifices in order to compete for their
country. The All Blacks did the same. Many found themselves quite poor, with
no job skills, once their sporting careers ended. But most would say it was
worth it for the honour of representing their country.
The same is still true for some sports,
especially for women competitors. But with so much money around - including
plenty from the government - many sports people are well paid, and there has
been a pervasive corrupting influence.
For example, in 1997, having lost out to
Iran in the World Cup soccer qualifiers, Australia’s Socceroos went to Saudi
Arabia for the Confederations Cup contest. Each player was promised $22,000
for reaching the final. But then, word leaked to the media that team members
thought this insufficient. They were planning to strike for more. “We were
representing our country and we should get what we deserve,” an anonymous
senior player was quoted as saying. Also in 1997, our top cricketers, some
on $400,000 a year, threatened to strike, ostensibly for more money for
When the Greg Williams umpire-shoving
episode erupted, his manager made much of the earnings that Williams stood
to lose, and it seems that in the AFL money is becoming increasingly
important. There are depressing signs that teams are splitting into two
factions: an elite group of superstars, with their own bands of managers,
lawyers and accountants, and allegiance to whichever club best meets their
demands; and the lowly foot soldiers. The team as a single unit,
representing and serving a community, fades into memory.
Yet I remain an optimist about sport in
Australia and its ability to shape character. And every weekend I join
hundreds of thousands of other optimistic Australians in a strange ritual,
criss-crossing our cities in cars, station wagons and old pick-ups. We are
the mums and dads of this country, and we are transporting our kids to their
sports games, to basketball, tennis, cricket, netball, little athletics,
footy, swimming and a myriad of other pursuits.
We do not do this because we enjoy it.
Have you ever met a parent who enjoys the work of driving children to sports
practice, piano lessons, Little Joeys or whatever? No, we do it because we
believe that through sport our kids will develop character. While the
international media magnates rip the soul from big-time sport, parents
throughout Australia maintain the faith at the community level. Like the
very modest Brian Gleeson, St Kilda ruckman and winner of the 1957 Brownlow
Medal, who was quoted at the head of this chapter, we still try to see
sports teams as a family.
In Character is Everything, the
book about sports ethics that I cited earlier, the author, Professor Russell
Gough, cited what he called one of his all-time favourite quotes. It comes
from the 19th-century English novelist Charles Reade: “Sow an act and you
reap a habit. Sow a habit and you reap a character. Sow a character and you
reap a destiny.”
In others words, seek to perform good
acts regularly, and they will become a habit. Through such habits you will
develop character. And from people of character comes a society’s destiny.
I and my weekend fellow-travellers believe
that through the traditions and disciplines of sport our kids are developing
character. And out of this will come the fate of our country. We are out
there driving our kids around every weekend because we love and believe in
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