August 19th, 2004


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.

Note On Following Essay.

i wrote the following essay a few years back, when i had a column on the popmatters website. the essay never got put up there, partly due to the fact that the editor believed that comparing a sporting icon to a poet was ridiculous (which was the point, mind you), and also because i wasn't fitting in with the site. good site, good people, not for me. eventually, with the essay lying around and doing nothing, i shunted it off to a russell b farr's zine, no award, where he printed it, and felt moved enough to add his own editorial comment at the bottom as to the fact that he disagreed entirely with it, and thought the essay one of the most naive things he had ever seen.

it just makes me like this little essay even more, really.