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Essay: A Nation of Sport.

Sir Donald Bradman died in February 2001, and in the days afterward, it felt as if the entire nation had stopped.

My friends father exemplified the behaviour of many when he heard the news. The information came to him through the television, the evening news airing the announcement that at first shocked him, and when the tributes to Bradman began, had him weeping openly. When asked by his family if he thought he might be overreacting, He began to tell him about Bradman’s importance as a sportsman, as an Australian, and to him, personally. Heartfelt words, but they are words not isolated to Bradman, nor cricket. The attitude that filled him, that sport is so much more than just a game, can be found throughout the public sphere of the country, much to my continual lack of pleasure.

If an individual had arrived from any nation not familiar with cricket at the time of Bradman’s death, they would have thought they were looking upon the tragedy of a celebrity cut down in his or her prime. One might even have said that it was Australia’s own Princess Diana, except, of course, that Bradman was a ninety two-year-old man who had never sought to dig up land mines, much less played cricket in the memory of anyone under fifty, since he had retired from the game in the season of 1948-49.

That doesn’t detract from the fact that Bradman was a great cricket player. Even I, in the midst of my cynicism and distaste for anything involving running with a piece of wood, will admit that he was one of the finest ever produced in Australia, with the amazing test average of 99.94 runs. But despite this, he was only a cricket player. He was knighted by the Queen for contributions to the game, and not, for example, championing the causes of minorities. In fact, in the later years of his life, Bradman allowed his name to be used in school programs that promoted cricket, and he voiced his opinion on the state of the game, but not once did he enter politics, or challenge the nations psyche in any way that would leave a lasting impression; in fact, in the final years of his life, Bradman was such a recluse, that even charity dinners in his name, and which were held a mile or two away from his home, failed to see him attend. It is perhaps this attitude that kept him alive in the minds of so many as his ability to play cricket.

None of these things were important when Bradman died. He was Australian, if not the Australian, and Prime Minister John Howard himself delivered a speech to note his passing. Later, the same Prime Minister passed a legislation that stopped the Bradman name from being exploited for commercial purposes. His actions are not surprising, but they do highlight the negative side of the sport live, which can even be glimpsed in the Prime Minister’s own words:

“The Bradman legend found form at a time when the nation was in its worst depression and in desperate need of a hero. Lifting the spirits of Australians, his efforts held us together when the mass unemployment risked splitting the social fabric of the nation apart.”

That one man, or even one sport, could be credited in part of keeping the nation together, is absolutely ludicrous. (It also ignores the fact that during the depression, Bradman used to his own fame to make extra money by selling his autograph to waiting fans.) But the mythic importance of sport is shown in those few lines: it holds the country together, keeps spirits up, gives the people a sense of being part of a collective whole, and, fosters the beginning of an intolerance.

It is not Bradman who is responsible for this, nor even sport itself. The negative side of this psyche manifested itself fully in the cliched figure of Australian culture: the sun bronzed, sport loving, beer swilling, Caucasian male, who worked hard, loved his family, and took pride in his work. Geoffrey Moorhouse, noted author and historian, in his book Sydney: the Story of a City, said that this figure helped create “one of the most repressed societies in the Western world, whose various prejudices dominated local life—sometimes brutally—along a wide range of issues, from sexual behaviour to the consumption of alcohol. You could only be absolutely certain that she’ll be right if you drank with the boys and took up surfing, or constructed your life around some other sport.”

The society that Moorhouse notes does not exist in such dominance now. Gone is the sun bronzed figure due to health reasons, as the intolerance towards homosexual lifestyles and foreigners has began to recede, though the latter is on the emergence, since September 11th created the new racial fear, however superficial and ignorant they may be. But the idea that sport is an important part of the average Australian’s life has not suffered the same attack over the years, and one can find plenty of sporting personalities who emerge and represent the Australian public, and who are thus credited with the greatest contributions to the national psyche—though these contributions are often no more than winning at their chosen sport.

It is not enough to simply bring out Bradman and talk about sport, and that is why I want the reader to also consider poetJudith Wright, who died at the age of eighty-five, eight months before Bradman. During her life, Wright won the Grace Leven Prize, the Australia-Britannica Award, the Robert Frost Memorial Award, the Australian World Prize, the Queen's Medal for Poetry, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was also an active conservationist, and championed Aboriginal rights, which appeared throughout her poetry, such as in the poem Bora Ring:

“The hunter is gone: the spear
is splintered underground; the painted bodies
a dream the world breathed sleeping and forgot.
The nomad feet are still.”

Wright’s death, however, was bought up in the parliament by the Opposition Party’s Michael Forshaw, who paid his respects to her in a short speech, while the ruling party that was lead by the same John Howard, made no such speech, instead leaving the press release to be written by a junior Minister of the Arts. Such a response places Wright and her contribution to the Australian psyche firmly towards the bottom of the Important-Things-for-Politicians-to-Do list—which, at least, placed her higher than fellow Nobel Prize nominee A.D. Hope, who was not mentioned at all by the Government after he died.

I compared Wright and Bradman because of the closeness in their death, and because to me, Wright’s poetry has always had more to say about Australia, and contributed more, than anything that Bradman did; while Bradman’s death, in comparison, shows just how highly the country holds its sporting personalities, believing that they contributed more to the country than anyone else. One could say that it is up to each individual to take from any given work or individual the set of attributes that they see, and it would be remiss of me to not mention that, but it is also important, I believe, to note the difference between artist and sportsman (or woman). The goals of an artist and sportsman are completely different from each other, and one could suggest, if in the most tentative way, that the difference is that one is about representation of the country, and the other is about the country. But such an argument is not my point here, and it is easy to find examples that suggest otherwise for both groups.

Many artists have originated from Australia: two-time Booker Award winner Peter Carey, Oscar winner Russell Crowe, actress Nicole Kidman, and pop sensation Kylie Minogue, all of them household names. It is interesting, however, to note, that apart from Russell Crowe, none of these people live in Australia, and that none of them have made the fame and success that they enjoy now by working within the country. They had to go abroad to find the success that they enjoy, and it has long been held that for an artist, success and fame does lie outside Australia, due to a combination of larger markets, and a public that is unwilling to offer the popularity that they give towards sporting personalities.

In comparison, there are many sporting personalities that one could choose from who, in the eyes of the public, represents the country in a way that is similar to that of Don Bradman. My pick of the favourites would be swimmer Ian Thorpe, who returned from the 2002 Commonwealth Games with six gold medals and one silver, and though I personally have no time for swimming, or Thorpe, one cannot ignore the support that he enjoys, and the positive atmosphere that surrounds him when he is on television, either in interviews, or hosting the Angels, a television show where he and three attractive women do something nice for someone who, apparently, deserves it. When he appears, Thorpe is young and wholesome, and he places the sport and his teammates above himself while thanking his mum and dad and his country for everything that they have contributed, and it is this, as well as the achievements he has done in the name of Australia and the fact that he stays well away from the political arena, that have elevated him to superstar status. 

The question, in the end, comes down to one of views, and if the individual believes that their views are finding a voice. My views are struggling—in fact, they’ve been lost because they’re not represented by someone who swims fast or who has the test average of 99.94. I don’t know what these achievements say about the country I live in, if they can say anything beyond what kind of person the individual who achieved them was when they were interviewed—and perhaps that is all they do say. But then, when someone like Sir Donald Bradman dies, I find that the love, the adoration, even the patriotism that pours out is misplaced, misdirected, and even—though it will make me unpopular to say so—misapplied. Donald Bradman, unlike Judith Wright, never tried to change the country he was in, never did anything but hit a ball and provide entertainment for a lot of people. It’s no mean feat, I admit, but it is not done with the same pathos, the same moral and ethic call that Wright’s work was done with, and it is those attributes that I find more important—which, it seems, are attributes that pale against the little ball flying high in the sky, before it drops like the dead weight it is.

Comments

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shadowsandice
Aug. 19th, 2004 01:55 am (UTC)
Word, fucking WORD so bloody word fucking A WORD. (Dissident and non-sports playing/watching/following person at large.)

If they put as much money into the arts as they put into sport...actually, scratch that. Put it all into education. Learn 'em real good.
benpeek
Aug. 19th, 2004 03:07 am (UTC)
see, look at that, post it and find one person to agree with it within a moment. it's kinda weird to imagine people not publishing it or called it naive and everything, but there it is.

feel free to share around. i think ten or so people all together have read it.
shadowsandice
Aug. 19th, 2004 03:24 am (UTC)
This monkey spreads opinions like a disease.
benpeek
Aug. 19th, 2004 03:54 am (UTC)
i love being a disease.
bodhichitta0
Aug. 19th, 2004 06:41 am (UTC)
Hmmm--I don't feel too qualified to comment on the specifics of this but I think the nature or "bottomline" of your essay greatly applies to the U.S. as well. Our sports figures make an insane amount of money here while teachers and my sister the social worker (who helps victims of domestic violence) make squat. I also believe that U.S. professional sports have become the bread and circuses of our century. There are many men here who cannot *wait* for Monday Night Football to start as that distraction saves them from, well a variety of things--time with their families, thinking about the nature of their own lives, reading, any sort of spiritual life.

We also have the same problems with our public schools--football always comes before art. Soccer before band. Cheerleading before the library. I don't understand it.

Finally (sorry about the long comment)--I do see a beauty and grace and art in certain forms of athleticism (for me it's swimming and running, something about its rhythm). But should that athleticism be placed on a pedestal above everything? No. And I don't believe it is naive to question what your fellow citizens value, any more than I think it is naive to question what you yourself value. That was a very strange comment the editor made.
benpeek
Aug. 20th, 2004 06:21 am (UTC)
i actually think the money aspect of sport is something that is not inherently a problem with sport. take film, for example. it's utterly obscene to think that a couple of the top gross making films would make enough money to make change a third world country around, to bring in electricity, sewage, and all sorts of things.

i wish i knew why sporting events got more money than art, or why they connected with people so easily, and me not at all. i'd probably be able to solve some problems for myself with that. or at least make a bunch of money.
bodhichitta0
Aug. 20th, 2004 10:28 am (UTC)
Yes of course, certainly films and what celebritries make for films are just a different side of the same coin. And I am much more guilty of contributing my money to movies than I am sporting events. We rarely go to sporting events unless we get free tickets from a friend or company.

I also understand what you are saying about sporting events not connecting with you. I live in a university town with a thriving basketball team and a so-so football team. It is "good for the school" when they win and "bad for the school" when they lose. Again, don't understand how a bunch of 19 year old boys should affect alumni funding. But they do. It is never mentioned that the University's president has been in Iraq for over a year as a consultant to the new government. It is never mentioned that the University has pioneered techniques to improve veterinary science. But if we make it into the Sweet Sixteen again--well, that is national news and an e-mail to all the alum.

I think all of this is related to 1) consumption, especially conspicuous consumption (you've read your Thorstein Veblen?)and 2)the whole sit down, shut up and watch TV mentality which seems to have overcome the U.S. TV even covers popular books with specials and interviews with the authors so people don't need to read them.

And somewhat related but not really--I read a novel called The Brothers K by David James Duncan and within it was one of the best explanations of why Americans love baseball I've ever read.
mariness
Aug. 19th, 2004 09:37 am (UTC)
If it's any comfort to you, the only name that I didn't recognize in your essay was Bradman, but then again we don't follow cricket here in the U.S., even assuming I followed sports, which I don't. Judith Wright's poetry was assigned reading in some undergraduate course or other -- one of those where you go through various samples of contemporary poets -- Cathy Song, Leslie Marmon Silko, Derek Walcott, etc. And Russell Crowe looks very good without a shirt on. (I realize that wasn't the point you were going for, but still.)

We have the same problem here in the U.S.; if you took a random sample of Florida residents, I will bet you anything that more of them could name the starting lineup of the Miami Dolphins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers than list 22 authors. It's almost impossible to avoid, even if, like me, you hate football and actively avoid it.

Of course, the fact that I work next door to the Miami Dolphins training camp is not helpful.
benpeek
Aug. 20th, 2004 06:24 am (UTC)
yeah, it's impossible to avoid football in sydney. just impossible. like, right now, if i went to my fridge and took out a can of coke, i would find the faces of little footballers staring at me, because they are on the can in some strange promotional thing.

odd, really.

anyhow, even if you did follow cricket (which i don't think is very big in the USA), there's really no reason to even know bradman, since he stopped playing years before you were even born. in fact, most people had never even seen him play, which struck me as strange. there is probably an equivalent in the states for bradman, though. michael jordan, maybe.
kieranmushroom
Aug. 19th, 2004 11:19 pm (UTC)
Some interesting points there, BenPeek. Personally I think the popularity of sport vs the arts has more to do with the medium. Ie, if Judith Wright's poetry were delivered in a movie produced by someone famous and starring someone sexy, she'd be a hero. (Or would she? I'll get around to that in a sec.) However, it's difficult to imagine a hero you don't see on TV all the time.

And you're held at a distance because her struggles are her character's heroic struggles - witness JK Rowling. She's completely overshadowed by Harry Potter, although she does have some personal fame. But her fame is mostly because she's a "rags to riches" character - the public, apparently, loves to hear stories about sudden and massive enrichment. And I guess the fact that the enrichment is via her own effort is the icing on the cake.

So my point (and I realise this is a bit of a rant), is who would you have be the hero in the arts? The poet or author, or the characters of the poet/author? In order to capture the imagination of the public, you have to be a character yourself. You can't keep disappearing behind characters or artwork, unless there is something unique about YOU.

Secondly, you need to DO something that resonates with the public. The public loves the heroism of these sportspeople gathering glory for Australia on the world stage, and it's not just about the little country vs the big international palyers like the USofA - it's also a personal thing. Somewhere deep inside, I'd say we're probably biologically programmed to emulate the deeds of our heroes, and as physical beings it's probably quite natural that we admire physical prowess.

So it should come as no surprise that these people are adored, worshipped - they give us our 4-yearly dose of heroism in such a tangible way, helpfully stage-managed by the media.
benpeek
Aug. 20th, 2004 06:31 am (UTC)
i don't know if i really follow. i mean, is there such a difference between a sporting personality and a writing personality? one hides behind the game and what position they take, and one hides behind their work--neither are really very interesting when you remove them from that. that's what reality tv works on, the basis that people without anything to contribute to society might somehow be interesting... if you put people who do contribute to society in big brother (be it sport or art) and they sat around talking about how their sexuality makes them feel warm and fuzzy, then they would be accused of being boring.

no, if anything, sport works because it encourages people to follow, while art encourages people to decipher. (and films, really, are more about having people follow them on a giant escapism ride, please don't think, thank you muchly.)

which of course connects tot he point about resonating with the country. people actively avoid work that resonates with their country, as it is, for some reason, somethign that makes them think, or some such thing, and this, in the recreational function that we have created for literature and film, is bad.

i guess.
kieranmushroom
Aug. 20th, 2004 04:21 pm (UTC)
Yes, I think there is a big difference, but it's mostly in the stage managing. Sports celebrities are presented by the media. But who presents artists? Mostly their work. And we all know how many monkeys read books.

For monkeys, read The Average Joe...

Thus you have reality TV. People who are stars even though they have less talent than the dudes who play Santa Claus at Westfields. But because they're being piped into everyone's loungeroom in a mildly interesting context, they become stars. Voila.

Yes, I take your point about sports (follow) arts (decipher). And I agree people avoid Australia-stuff like the plague. Incidentally, I found one of your stories on the internet - The Saint. Way to go for redressing the balance.
benpeek
Aug. 21st, 2004 06:54 am (UTC)
that artists don't have a representation in the media like the sports men and women really links back to the original point about voices not being heard, though, right? it's a bit of a circular logic that can keep up for a while.

anyhow, yeah, 'cigarettes and roses'. i'm happy for people to read that story--took me five years to get it published, and i think it holds up reasonably. enough that i don't cringe when people read it, a couple of years later. if it's to your taste, feel free to go hunting for other anthos--there's AGOG! SMASHING STORIES, edited by cat sparks, and FOREVER SHORES, edited by peter mcnamara and margaret winch, which are pretty recent publications and with stories worth reading, i think. they're different to the first and to each other, too, which is good.

that probably sounds odd, doesn't it? heh. i have absolutely zero self-promotional desire when tutoring, since it's not the venue for it, but here i just shrug and do it poorly.

though, based off memory, the books'll probably be of interest for you on local scene content issues. they're considered the top (on reputation of previous work of the editors) of the very small australian scene.
kieranmushroom
Aug. 22nd, 2004 05:22 am (UTC)
I enjoyed the religious overtones in C&R - it adds a nice mysticism to it, which is neat. And the smell of roses was a very good sensory metaphor, I thought. I don't think smells is used much in fiction, as a metaphor, but when it's done like you did it it seems to work very well.

A note - one of the guys from the class asked me if you could "walk the walk", so to speak, so I mentioned that your story was pretty good. I notice you didn't put your own stuff in the reader, a la Paul Dawson...

How's the novel coming along? I've got a copy of Agog!, but I should check Galaxy to see if they've got Forever Shores.
benpeek
Aug. 22nd, 2004 05:39 am (UTC)
hey, thanks. i wish i could take all the compliments for the roses, but i have to fess up to the fact that, when i initially came across writing about saints, it said that there were two general myths: the first being that they smelt of roses, and the second being that they were always asked before being moved, and that the ability to lift them meant the saint agreed. wish i could remember where i got it from now...

the walk the walk thing is pretty funny. i can see where it comes from, though. as for the reader... well, paul designs it and puts in what he wants. i doubt he has read anythin of mine at all. if it were me designing the reader, i'd probably still not put it in, just as i don't bring it up in tutes. i just figure that the class venue isn't about promoting me, or even about me, and that it's about everyone else first. far as i'm concerned, it's lacking a bit of class to continually bring up your work and promote it.

as for the novel, it's okay. pushing to it's final first draft stages while a whole heap of other stuff goes on around it, which is a shame, but nothing new. i'll cut back the working after this to finish it all off by mid next year, though, so it'll righten out.

forever shores is worth checking. some of the other australian stuff is a bit dodge, though, so use your dodge-a-metre for it. this includes some of the things i've dodgely appeared in :)
kieranmushroom
Aug. 19th, 2004 11:21 pm (UTC)
Monkey stuff
I like your evolving monkey theme, by the way. Go Darwin! Woo!
benpeek
Aug. 20th, 2004 05:40 am (UTC)
Re: Monkey stuff
the monkey theme is good. and that appears to be a familiar monkey pic in the corner up there, too.

(i'll get to replying to the other comment in a bit. just thought i'd say hi first.)
kieranmushroom
Aug. 20th, 2004 04:24 pm (UTC)
Re: Monkey stuff
Heh heh...so where's your monkey pic? Yeah, I like the monkey stuff. Evolution is one of my pet topics.

On a personal note, I should add that the passing of The Don moved me as much as the passing of last night's dinner.
benpeek
Aug. 21st, 2004 06:56 am (UTC)
Re: Monkey stuff
no, no monkey pictures for me. i think they look tacky. i've seen some very nice ones, mind, but i don't design them to fit well with the layout, and i like the stripped back feel it has without them. go figure.

what, btw, is with the redlantern thing?
kieranmushroom
Aug. 22nd, 2004 05:34 am (UTC)
Re: Monkey stuff
Sorry about the Redlantern thing. I posted from my flatmate's computer and forgot to log out of his LJ account. And he's a big comic book nerd, so I guess Redlantern is some superhero thing. Anyway, aren't you into comics and stuff??

I don't mind comic books btw. I always was a fan of Tintin. Also those Japanese comics - the ones where the hot little schoolgirls with their big Hello Kitty eyes are always accidentally falling over and exposing their underpants and giggling, then going to giant robot driving school to defend Tokyo 3.
benpeek
Aug. 22nd, 2004 05:46 am (UTC)
Re: Monkey stuff
yeah, i dig comics. some strange and cool stuff there.

i took a look at the redlantern thing. i couldn't be sure if it was you doing a pisstake or not. heh. oh well. i did only glance.
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