Rugby union boffins name the near-flawless legend, John Eales, as Australia’s greatest Wallaby. A dual world cup winner in 1991 and in 1999 as captain, he is lionized wherever rugby is known.
In 2017, Eales spoke emotionally of the day he led a Wallabies snub of the New Zealand All Blacks’ haka, the incomparable Maori war dance. In a 1996 Test match in Wellington, the Wallabies turned their backs on the performance, incensing the All Blacks and New Zealand rugby fans. Cultural observers worldwide mourned, lamenting the insult to a cultural symbol of courage in combat and pride in peace.
Long after the end of his illustrious career, Eales confessed his sorrow at instigating a haunting international affront. He added a further sadness: after 40,000 years of indigenous culture in Australia, the Wallabies had no equivalent cultural expression of their own.
We know sport brings out the best and worst of humanity. We only occasionally see gestures of humility in victory and nobility in defeat. Too often we wince at thuggishness and brutality on the pitch and in the stands.
More than a matter of life and death
‘What’s better than thrashing Collingwood (an Australian rules football team known for its sometimes uncouth fans) by twenty goals? Breaking their hearts by a single point.’
Another football aphorism: from the cultural mountain of Anfield, legendary Liverpool FC manager, Bill Shankly, pronounced: ‘Football is not a matter of life and death. It’s far more serious than that.’
Australians and New Zealanders push Shankly’s observation further, applying it to all sport. In Australia, the leader of the nation, the Prime Minister, enjoys less recognition and deference than the captain of the Australian cricket team. Or did, until the notorious 2018 tour of South Africa when the Australian captain, Steve Smith, and his maligned ‘leadership group’ went close to destroying that revered tradition. Sandpapergate, as the infamous Australian ball-tampering plot became known, pierced Australia’s cultural heart.
Winning selection for the New Zealand All Blacks rugby union team isn’t just the pinnacle of sporting achievement; it’s an elevation to sainthood.
And South American life insurance policy writers hesitate when covering a small but significant cohort of the sporting population — soccer referees.
Sport is big business whichever way you look at it. Respected global management consultant firm, A.T. Kearney, values sport as a US$$480-$620 billion annual contributor to the world economy. We can’t dismiss it as children letting off steam in the sandpit.
The Vatican of Australian sport, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, still holds the world record for sporting attendance: 1,153,000 for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. It also holds the world record for a single cricket Test match — 350,534.
Melbourne too is the only major city in the world to stage a public holiday for a horse race. The Melbourne Cup has earned its proud label as the race that stops a nation. At 3pm on the first Tuesday in November, millions of Australians in every corner of the country gather round TVs and radios to hear the call.
You’d imagine with Australia’s vast mineral and agricultural wealth, our leading employer would be mining, farming, or manufacturing. Think again. It’s more likely the horse racing industry.
Leading players from any of a dozen sports codes find cultural, commercial, and political doors flung open to them that few, often better qualified mortals could approach let alone breach.
We take our sport seriously indeed. It’s not simply what we do; it’s quintessentially who we are, and how we relate to the universe. Even if we’re not champions on the field, in the pool, or riding the waves, we live in our imaginations through our heroes. Vicarious pleasure — gaining satisfaction through others’ success — comes as readily to us as blowies to a barbecue.
The darkness —sport, pride, and tragedy
Then there’s the darkness. Sport, pride, and tragedy make a celebrated trio.
Ancient Greek theatre gave us tragedy, and it wasn’t your grandmother dying in her sleep at 102. It described the man (always a man) of culture, position, and exceptional personal qualities who crashes to catastrophe through pride, stubbornness, and an inability or unwillingness to deal with the facts. The Greeks called it nemesis through hubris — punishment through overweening ego. In modern Western culture we’d say: the arrogant bastard got what he deserved.
In 2012 and 2016, Australia took two of its largest and reputedly strongest teams to the London and Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Both outfits glittered with actual and potential world stars. The nation expected our pet events, swimming, cycling, and rowing, to deliver a torrent of gold. All fell short, leaving it to lesser-known disciplines to plug an unstanchable wound.
When, after London, we slipped to tenth, well behind archrivals Great Britain on the international medal tally, we felt the injury to national pride as a cultural haemorrhage.
Across the Tasman, the culture that rugby injects into New Zealand penetrates deeper into national life than anywhere else on earth. When predominantly British settlers arrived in the Land of the Long White Cloud, they found the indigenous Maori already playing a game called ki-o-rahi. Containing elements of both rugby union and Australian Rules football, it forged a role in easing interracial tensions and nurturing a culture that would cement a new national identity.
As we saw at the beginning of this story, New Zealand culture is at its most visible in the haka. It’s that fierce and fearsome traditional war and tribal dance the All Blacks have long adopted with awesome success.
It doesn’t quite come with a watertight guarantee. Our Kiwi cousins suffer a collective cultural and psychological meltdown if the All Blacks fail to reach or win the Rugby World Cup final.
Little deaths within
When our heroes falter, fail, and fall — as fate and history dictate they all too often do — a little something dies within us too.
Think of the instances of ego, greed, and desperation that have brought so many undone. The list is agonisingly long: the East German government and its political sports doping culture; prominent athletes such as Ben Johnson and Lance Armstrong; sportsmen caught up in match-fixing and cheating, including cricketers Hansie Cronje; our own Australian cricketing titans Steve Smith and David Warner, shrunk to errant cheats.
Consider the origins of sport and its mostly successful attempts to establish a universal code of decency, honesty, purity, selflessness. Then ponder the shame that attaches itself to champions when they drop below agreed standards of fair play. Not only do they diminish themselves, but we too feel the loss of innocence and the ache of withdrawal when a beauty we hoped would remain unspoiled is ruined.
Their fall from grace brings to mind the concluding fragment of John Donne’s Meditation XVII, his immortal No Man is an Island poem:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Substitute a sporting betrayal for any man’s death. You begin to see another facet of cultural intelligence. You grasp that sport isn’t just a game but a spiritual grammar able to communicate triumph and tragedy in everybody’s language.