The Cultural Irrelevance of Sport in Australia

What do Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Roland Barthes, Albert Camus, CLR James and Marcel Duchamp have in common? They are intellectuals with an appreciation for sport and what it signifies in the modern age.

Trying to find any cultural equivalents in Australia is a sport in itself. Maligning sport has been something of an occupational pastime for sections of the cultural and intellectual vanguard of Australia to the extent it is focused on at all. Donald Horne in The Lucky Country saw sport as a type of egalitarian aspiration of the poor to “enjoy the games of the rich” but also as a vehicle for reproducing a “masculine sameness” which he saw functioning in Australian society as “one of the most flattening sources of uniformity”.

The Anti-Football League, established in 1967, was cut from the same cloth. At its zenith it enjoyed – according to its now moribund website – a higher membership than the Collingwood Football Club. As stated on its webpage, “League members are united by the common understanding that there is more to life than the ability to kick a pigskin between two white posts.” The League’s hall of fame includes such notables as Barry Jones, Terry Lane and Barry Humphries as well as the support of Phillip Adams who once, amusingly, likened the concept of moving an ovoid object between two sticks as akin to a primeval, reproductive impulse.

Antipathy toward sport is echoed in broadsheets by frustrated scions every year, notably around Australia Day and we can understand why. Since 1960, the top five Australians of the Year by category has gone as following:

Tony Abbott Adam Goodes
 Tony Abbott and Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes at last year’s Australian of the Year ceremony. Photograph: AAP
  • Sport – 14
  • Arts – 10
  • Medical science – 8
  • Science – 5
  • Indigenous affairs – 5

In terms of media coverage, national plaudits and awards, government funding and popular esteem, sport seems to crowd out all other challengers to national pre-eminence. No doubt the capacity of already popular and profitable sporting codes to garner accolades and government funding while other enterprises wither on the vine explains some of the antipathy toward sport from sections of Australia’s cultural and intellectual vanguard. The other half undoubtedly owes itself to the concept that sport functions as a cultural terminus in which nothing is achieved outside a visceral thrill and where everything remains as it was beforehand, and at worst, an entrenchment of retrograde concepts like machismo, commercialism and jingoism.

To be sure, there are sports historians as well as intellectuals who like sport, but the Australian intellectual or literati who draws the two phenomena together in their writings to make a comment about our history are few and far between.

Geoffrey Blainey’s A Game of Our Own provides an historical and social account of the development of Australian Rules football but outside of that it is slender pickings to find a leading intellectual who has devoted a whole book to sport. This seems to me a strange situation in late modernity; that a cultural phenomenon passing and trending as bigger than religion in terms of participation and attendance and rivalling voluntary organisations like trade unions should not be seriously discussed and reckoned with as worthy of investigation in the broader culture.

In Australia there are no formidable figures like Mailer, whose book The Fightcaptured the travails of Muhammad Ali, American discomfiture about black politics and colonialism and the translation of that form of identity politics in Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire. There is no Plimpton, who embedded himself within elite sporting teams to uncover a world as discrete and fascinating as any other sub-culture and recorded those experiences in Out of My League and Paper Lion,and who wrote for Sports Illustrated. There is no Jack Kerouac who attended Columbia on an American football scholarship or Paul Robeson who attended Rutgers on an academic scholarship and became an outstanding gridiron player. Perhaps this is a function of the enmeshing of sport and academia in the US college system, but even if we viewed this as an offshoot of American Exceptionalism – which it isn’t – that does nothing to explain away the global significance of sport as a mass cultural phenomenon, nor the fact that intellectuals around the globe have attempted to grapple with sport and what it might mean in society in an imaginative way.

Lionel Rose
 Lionel Rose’s boxing gloves were worthy of an Australia Post commemorative stamp. Photograph: Australia Post/AAP Image

Could it be that the “flattening uniformity” of Australian sport which Horne spoke of is more reflective of a flattening intellectual template?

Boxing is a sport which has spawned some terrific historical and literary works. The critically acclaimed Unforgiveable Blackness by Geoffrey C Ward explores the life of flamboyant black American boxer Jack Johnson and the unbelievable hurdles he faced to win the world heavyweight title in a racist fin-de-siecle America. It won multiple literary awards and praise from the likes of Joyce Carol Oates but it’s not a book of solitary value. Mike Marqusee’s excellent Redemption Song or Mailer’s The Fight are further examples of this style of social documentation through sport. But where are our boxing texts? In Australia we have had some fascinating boxers and stories: from the West India-born grandson of a slave-cum Australian dockworker and mutiny queller, Peter Jackson, to indigenous fighter Lionel Rose who lived in a tin hut until the age of 10, to the hosting of the world heavyweight title bout between Jack Johnson and Tommy Burns in Rushcutters Bay in 1908 after Johnson was refused the opportunity as a black man to contest the title for “the Emperor of Masculinity” in America. But just as the Jack Johnson tale is not the only engaging story to be told in boxing, boxing is not the only sport to provide an entrepot to social mores.

The Trinidadian Marxist and intellectual, CLR James, is well known in history departments for his book The Black Jacobins which documented the Haitian Revolution and the rise of black slave Toussaint L’Ouverture to political power, but he was also a cricket fanatic and commentator who wrote Beyond a Boundary. The book – which enjoyed high praise from V.S. Naipaul – deals with cricket as seen through the prism of colonialism, race, class and how the bourgeois origins of the game in England translated in West Indian society. Surely as a colonial outpost in the South Pacific we can get a handle on cricket in Australia and explore its ramifications through individuals or as an organised spectacle: the Protestant-Catholic divide, national versus suburban rivalries, racial participation – to focus on the specific and draw back to a larger portrait of Australian life. Cricket, like any sport, is not hermetically sealed from the society in which it arises and in fact owing to the ubiquity of sport its ideological nuances are often hidden from our perceptions, just as liberal views are endlessly articulated without the need for any thought as to their origins. According to James, cricket “plunged me into politics long before I was aware of it. When I did turn to politics, I did not have too much to learn.” (New Statesman Ltd. Aug 16-Aug 22, 2013.)

It is a sentiment echoed by Camus – the Nobel Prize winning author, essayist, journalist and philosopher and last but not least a keen goalkeeper. While Camus’s statement “all that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football” is treated as a flippant aside by his acolytes, his appreciation of the body and its’ capacities for existential joy and suffering is a theme Camus explored without rest in A Happy Death.

Albert Camus goalie
 Albert Camus (at the front, wearing a flat cap) poses with team-mates. Photograph: Roger-Viollet/Rex Features

Barthes also gave a social significance to the body – particularly French wrestling – which he devoted a chapter to in Mythologies. Barthes referred here not to fake wrestling but real wrestling in which each participant nevertheless fulfils a character role as redolent as those in the theatre, such as the wrestler Thauvin, the salaud or bastard, “a 50-year-old with an obese and sagging body, whose type of asexual hideousness…displays in his flesh the characters of baseness”. This proletarian, amateur sporting contest, hidden from view in “squalid Parisian halls”, is as deserving of contemplation according to Barthes as Greek drama. As he argues, “there are people who think wrestling is an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque.”

While not quite at the same level of sweaty egalitarianism, the Dadaist enfant terrible Duchamp ditched concept art for the competitive realm of chess. For Duchamp, chess “has all the beauty of art – and much more. It cannot be commercialised. Chess is much purer than art in its social position…I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.”

OK, maybe chess was a reach, but the fact that we don’t have any great tomes on sport in Australia which use sport as the basis for a cultural and social history is not really explicable outside of a wilful intellectual aversion.

We are saturated in sport to be sure, as is the rest of the world, but we are also saturated in hoary clichés about contemporary politics and history which invite no novel interpretation of events. In fact politics is treated as sport is, as a hermetically sealed log of events unrelated and unconditioned by any outside cultural forces. Politics is what happens in Canberra and in newspapers, just as sport is what happens in arenas. While a thousand typewriters rehash what is already known, our social history remains untapped. It’s particularly notable that the list of global intellectuals mentioned here who have written about sport come from the left-liberal tradition, but the only prominent intellectual in Australia to canvass the subject in any serious way is the conservative Geoffrey Blainey. Like Labor vacating the intellectual ground on economic questions despite its considerable reforms, the failure of Australian left-liberals to articulate a history of Australian life as seen through the popular adjunct of sport – a cultural behemoth with pre-existing currency – is perplexing.