Why are we such a great sporting nation?

Date: January 29, 2014 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

In the shadows of Australia Day what better time is there to reflect on just why this nation of ours has such a strong culture and history of sporting success?

Once again the Australian of the Year was a sportsperson – this time the Sydney Swans’ dual Brownlow medallist Adam Goodes.

The dual AFL premiership player, a beacon for the indigenous and a man hell bent on improving the lot of his people, is the 14th sportsperson to receive the honour since the inception of the award in 1960.

More sportspeople have been accorded the honour of Australian of the Year than those from any other walk of life – next most prominent is the arts which has supplied ten recipients.

So why is sport such a central plank of Australian society?

Settled by Europeans in 1788, Australia’s documented history is a brief one, but perhaps the fanaticism towards sport is more to do with how and why Australia was settled.

Mother England at the time was suffering from a severe over-crowding problem in its gaols and the British government was keen to find a solution.

What better way than to send its criminals to the other side of the world.

Australia soon became a gaol in isolation, with convicts being transported to the land down under.

The country’s free settlers did not start arriving until five years later, and even then, there were only 11 in the initial assignment.

Over time, that number steadily increased. By 1830, there were 17,000 of them, but they were still far and away outnumbered by the convicts, whose numbers had swelled to 65,000.

Life in those days was not easy. Much of the day was taken up with either back breaking work or mere survival in what, to many, seemed a hostile and inhospitable environment.

Australia’s white settlement was initially founded on the notion that the nation was a home for those of inferior social standing.

Right from day one the new inhabitants had something to prove. The aim was to throw off the tag of being a motley, unwanted race.

But just how could Australians in those days challenge that notion?

It took many years to develop a place on the world stage with respect to the likes of industry, science and medicine.

But there was sport.

Taking on other nations on the sporting fields of the world was a way of gaining acceptance, as if being given admittance to the international community, and Australia took to it with gusto.

The development of sport in this country was greatly aided by the climate and natural resources.

Most parts of the nation were blessed with an abundance of sunshine, something that made outdoor pursuits extremely desirable.

Unlike many Europeans countries, there was no shortage of land in Australia to hamper the provision of playing fields – indeed many Australian cities were designed with recreational facilities very much in mind.

A quality water supply, an essential ingredient to life, was also in abundance, as was food.

Australian soil was conducive to agricultural pursuits, whether that be growing crops or raising livestock, and the proceeds were eagerly consumed.

The establishment of farms in those early days was backbreaking work and gave birth to the ‘Bronzed Aussie’ made famous by the likes of C J Dennis and Henry Lawson.

If there is one sport which Australia has truly excelled at at international level it would be swimming with names like Durack, Charlton, Henricks, Rose, Fraser, Gould, and Perkins gracing the winner’s podium around the world.

Our dominance has is in no doubt been due to a combination of climate and also the wonderful beaches and waterways that dot the nation – it was in Australia that surf lifesaving was born and our aquatic dominance has also been displayed in other sports like surfing, rowing and sailing.

Early in the history of white settlement men largely outnumbered women which tended to unify the country’s masculine spirit and produce the now familiar notion of mateship, something that has been at the forefront of Australian life at times of hardship.

In the convict era, the authorities aimed to divide and conquer and this approach brought out the need for the convicts to band together against the common evil.

This celebration of the male spirit was also very much evident in the development of team sports in Australia.

Almost from day one Australia did not merely aim to participate as victory was always present in the psyche.

Given the mode of colonization Australia and Australians were often cast as the underdog, a role that was often cherished as the aim was to make a statement on the world stage.

Sport became imbued in the Australian DNA.

We produced our first world champion in 1876 when Edward Trickett won the professional singles sculls title on London’s River Thames.

News of Trickett’s victory took three weeks to reach home. When it did, there were unbridled celebrations and he was welcomed home to his native Sydney by an estimated crowd of 25,000.

As far as success over the Old Dart was concerned nothing could surpass what the Australian cricket team achieved at The Oval in 1882, when on its third official tour of England, it produced an incredible come from behind victory that spurned the birth of The Ashes, the most famous prize in Australian sport.

Trickett was the first in a long line of Australians to win a world title.

There has hardly been a period in the past 125 years when Australia has not had an individual or team regarded as the best in the world which for a nation that still boasts a population of less than 25 million is an amazing achievement.

Some of those champions – like Bradman, Lindrum, Elliott, Fraser, Laver and McKay – have entered the pantheon of greats in their respective sports.

The diversity of Australia’s sporting success is one of the things that sets it apart from many other nations.

Think for a moment of the sports in which Australia has produced champions – tennis, golf, hockey, squash, cricket, sailing, equestrian, beach volleyball, billiards, surfing, rugby union, swimming, athletics, lawn bowls, cycling, netball, archery, taekwondo, weightlifting, boxing and rowing –  the list goes on.

In more recent times, we have also contributed gold medallists at the Winter Olympics, whilst our disabled sports stars are regarded as some of the world’s finest and our indigenous athletes have also lit up the sporting stage.

Perhaps the country’s crowning glory in sport came at the Sydney Olympics where Australia finished fourth on the medal tally with a national record of 58 medals, 16 of which were gold.

The only countries to top the host nation were the United States, the Russian Federation and China while in our wake were nations such as Germany, Great Britain, Italy and France.

Sydney 2000 showcased to the world once and for all that Australia is a mighty sporting nation.

Importantly however, the Olympics also conveyed to the rest of the world far more than just our sporting prowess.

The 16-day extravaganza also allowed the nation to show itself off to a worldwide audience.

When IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch declared to the world on 1 October 2000 that Sydney had staged the best Olympic Games ever, it resulted in a nation standing tall and thrusting out its chest, just as we did in 1983 when Australia II wrested the America’s Cup from the New York Yacht Club after 132 years.

Coming at the bridge of two millennia, the Sydney Olympics not only highlighted our sporting excellence but it also displayed to the world just how far a small, isolated and young nation had come.

Just 200 years after European settlement and with a population of around 20 million at the time, Australia had provided the world with its greatest ever sporting spectacle.

While our sports stars rightly took the accolades, the country as a whole was the winner.

We may have been formed as a nation on the back of convicts and cast-offs yet from a sporting point of view it has proven to be a godsend.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 28 January 2014