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Sporting Australia (boxed text)

Not every Australian loves sport. For a while we even had a Prime Minister who didn’t. Paul Keating loved polished furniture, Mahler and seventeenth century French clocks. Nevertheless, as a politician, he knew which way the numbers fell. It was a joy to watch Keating watch sport. Smile chiseled in place. Turning up when he had to. Cheering just after everyone else.

Other Prime Ministers have been at one with the national obsession. Most famously of all, PM Bob Hawke, on the morning in 1983 when Australia II finally won the America’s Cup, wafted his champagne glass to a waking public and declared that ‘any boss who sacks anyone for not coming to work today is a bum.’

In 2001, Saul Eslake, an economist, warned that Australia ‘is obsessed by sport and almost completely indifferent to success in any other field. Including, in particular, success in business.’

Eslake has a point. When the British ‘Barmy Army’ recently came to these shores for an Ashes cricket tour, they sang a song ‘Three dollars to the pound’, as though Australians would suddenly turn away from 15 years of glorious on-field domination to think about the FTSE. Rightly or wrongly, Australian national pride is tied up in sporting success. Politicians know this, which explains why as a percentage of GDP, Australia splashes more money on elite sports funding than just about any other country on Earth.

Strangely, for all this national pride, the number one most watched sport in Australia is a local one. Australian Rules football, (see boxed text p#) is like tribal warfare. Around Melbourne you can quickly pass through Carlton, Collingwood, Hawthorn, North Melbourne, Footscray, Essendon, Richmond and St Kilda –all of which have a team in the elite AFL ( Once this league was exclusively Victorian, but since 1982, it has expanded nationally. It will pain most Victorians to admit it, but between 1992 and 2002, interstate teams won the premiership 6 times. Interestingly, on each of these occasions, the interstate coach wore a moustache.

The most spectacular aspects of the game are the long kicking, the high marking and the brutal collisions (shirtfronts) which nobody likes to see (‘blah blah, safety of the players blah blah’) but which nevertheless get replayed ten times on the evening news. One champion player, Leigh Matthews (now Brisbane’s coach), once stunned an opponent by cupping his hand under his bloodied nose before drinking his own blood.

There are some people (in NSW and Qld generally) who will argue that rugby league is the national football code, and the best way to deal with these people is to quietly tell them that they’re wrong. Sometimes they’ll be stocky types with forearms like Christmas hams, in which event I’d ask that you not cite me as your source.

If however, very large men laying very large tackles is your thing, an NRL game ( see boxed text p#) will deliver. Unlike AFL, players represent their States (Qld or NSW) in the annual State of Origin series. To see one of these games is to acquire a terrifying appreciation of Newton’s Laws of Motion: a force travelling in one direction can only be stopped with the application of an equal and opposite force. Ouch. There are also international games, although they might as well be called ‘Australia versus North England’, or Australia versus ‘New Zealanders Who Can’t Play Union’.

Australia is a nation of swimmers. Whereas any of you could be taken by a shark at any moment, we parry them away with skill and finesse.  Okay, that might be a bit of a stretch, but girt by sea and public pools, and with swimming on school curriculums, Australians can swim.

Swim stars are our cereal box celebrities, and currently Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett are the biggest. Both have won Olympic golds and both have broken world records. In post race interviews they are rarely as out of breath as an average person laden with heavy shopping.

The English (or possibly the French) invented cricket, and it’s beautiful (c’est magnifique). For a newcomer to the sport, perhaps the best advice is not to expect too much action. Like baseball, cricket is about accumulation. It can build to soaring crescendos, but sometimes it doesn’t – so bring a good book.

Until the 1930s, Test matches could last up to 9 days with no result, but with the Geneva Convention, they were cut back to a maximum of 5. Today, there is huge interest in a form of the game called one day cricket, which appears at first glance to be more entertaining. It is also at these games that spectators are more likely to throw food.

At the time of writing, Australian teams are the best in the world at both Test and one day cricket. The men have not lost ‘The Ashes’ to England since 1987. If you are English and wish to avoid talking about this uncomfortable fact, it is recommended you consider travelling around Australia as a mute.

Historically, rugby union was an amateur sport, played by ‘our sort of people, old chap’ and its century long rivalry with professional rugby league was the closest thing sport had to a clash of ideologies. In 1995, however, rugby turned professional and after years of ‘defections’ to league, the trend reversed. Recently, Wendall Sailor and Lote Tuqiri signed over from league to union to play for the Wallabies.

The Wallabies are the national team, and at the time of writing, are the only team to have won the World Cup twice. Apart from the World Cup, Bledisloe Cup matches against New Zealand are the most anticipated fixtures (it’s great watching the Australians determinedly not watching the All Blacks war cry or haka) and form part of a Tri-Nations tournament that also includes South Africa ( Australia also has three teams in the Super 12s: the Waratahs (Sydney), the Reds (Brisbane) and the Brumbies (ACT).

Come January, somebody usually fries an egg on court at Melbourne Park, just to show that you can . The Australian Open is one of tennis’ four Grand Slams ( Up to half a million people watch day and night matches, and  Rod Laver Arena (named after the only man to win 2 Grand Slams (1962, 1969)) was the first stadium in the world to develop a retractable roof.

Lleyton Hewitt is now the great hope, having won both Wimbledon, and the US Open. His relentless shouting of quotes from Rocky movies, however, does bring him detractors, and many locals reminisce fondly about Patrick Rafter, a dual major winner. Both Hewitt and Rafter have tasted success in Davis Cup. At the time of writing, Australia has 28 titles, second after the USA on 31.

Australian soccer still has to cope with that day in 1997, when in the dying stages we conceded 2 goals to Iran to squander a spot at the World Cup finals in France. The Socceroos have only qualified once, in 1974 (when England didn’t!), but with FIFA’s decision to allocate a spot to Oceania, they are a strong chance for Germany 2006.

Locally, the NSL ( is improving, although the best players (like Harry Kewell) are destined to chase the better competition, contracts and mineral water on offer in Europe.

On the first Tuesday in November, the nation stops for a horse race, the Melbourne Cup ( It is a handicap run over 3200 metres, and in Victoria, Cup Day is a public holiday (strange but true). Our most famous Cup winner was called Phar Lap, who won in 1930, before dying of a mystery illness in America. Phar Lap is now stuffed (even more so than he was after carrying 10 stone over two miles), and the prize exhibit at Museum Victoria.

There are 1.2 million netballers in the country, which makes it Australia’s most popular participation sport ( Internationally, Australia has been dominant, winning World Championships a plenty. And now socially, mixed netball is growing, one theory being that if you’re going to do your knee, you might as well do it while meeting members of the opposite sex.

The list of sports could go on. From hockey ( to the Surf Classic at Bells Beach ( to the spectacular Sydney to Hobart yacht race, beginning Boxing Day in Sydney Harbour ( From the Formula One Grand Prix (  to basketball (; ) to greyhound racing and its failed flirtation with monkey jockeys in the 1930s (this is true, the monkeys used their tails as whips!). There is something for every sporting taste in Australia. Paul Keating will tell you that there is also something here for fans of the seventeenth century French clock, and there is. Even if the television coverage isn’t quite as extensive.