Some Things I Forgot to Say About Sport

At the Brisbane Writers Festival I was on a panel about sport and writing alongside Hugh Lunn and Don Watson moderated by Lee McGowan. All three are sports obsessives and so it was great fun and excellently moderated and much territory was covered and if anyone wants me to talk about sport in front of any kind of audience at all I AM SO THERE.


There were a few themes that emerged during the discussion. Both Hugh and Don1 were mournful for how sport in this country used to be, for past athletes who were humbler and more dedicated than the athletes of today. They seemed to also have a fair amount of sadness that Australia is no longer the great sporting nation it once was.

I do not share their concerns so that made for some fun exchanges.

I pointed out that during the decades of Hugh’s and Don’s coming of age as sport enthusiasts, the 1950s and 1960s, the athletes in this country were largely still amateurs. Most had day jobs and were paid a pittance—if they were lucky—to represent their club or their country. We were still in the midst of a shift from amateurism to professionalism.

Even now for many sports that shift has barely begun, particularly for women’s sports. That’s why Ellyse Perry is one of the few dual internationals left—representing Australia in both cricket and soccer. Back in the day it was de rigeur for the best Aussie athletes to play cricket in summer and their preferred code of football in the winter. These days the men cannot play both even if they want to: being an elite cricketer or a footballer is a full-time gig. That’s why Ellyse Perry is helping stack the chairs after one of her club games and fully professional blokes like Shane Watson are, well, not.

Everything that follows is stuff I wanted to say but didn’t get a chance to.

Probably the main reason Australia doesn’t seem to be as successful a sporting nation as it once was is that back then we didn’t actually have that much competition. If you look at the lists of say, tennis, champions in the 50s and 60s there are very few that aren’t Australian or from the UK or or the USA.

Let’s think about why, shall we?

Firstly, tennis used to be predominately a British game. Every single tennis champion until 1915 were British or from the USA or Australia. And they remain the vast majority until the 1980s. My evidence: these lists of grand slam champions. Tennis is now an international game, played all over the world. China now has a grand slam champion. I predict that there will many more.

Then there was this little thing called World War II, which set back most of Europe’s sporting programmes for many years. Australia was relatively unaffected. (As was the USA.) Australians could keep on training and playing and winning with far less competition than they would have had if there hadn’t been a world war.

Basically, while there is still nowhere near a level playing field,2 there are many more nations competing against us at all levels and in more sports than there once were. And as more countries around the world spend more money on their athletes our sporting achievements will continue to seem not nearly as good as they did up until the 1960s when it must have felt like we won almost everything.3

It’s also important to remember that until relatively recently most people were unable to train and compete, even in those wealthy countries like Australia and the USA, because of reasons of ethnic, racial and sexual discrimination. There’s a reason there have been so few African-American tennis champions. It was a sport for the wealthy. Now it’s a middle class sport played all over the world, which means the pool of talent has deepened and widened. The odds of a relatively small country like Australia regaining it’s former tennis glory are small indeed.

I would argue that the athletes who are at the top of their sport today are truly amazing. Samantha Stosur may have only won a single grand slam but the competition she is up against is much, much tougher than it was for, say, Margaret Court. And Stosur has managed to stay at a very elite level for quite a few years now, which is remarkable. This makes players like Serena Williams and Roger Federer some word which is like a hundred times stronger than “remarkable”.

Further to Samantha Stosur. I am so sick of her being bagged by the Australian press.4 She was the no. 1 in doubles for more than a year. She’s been as high as no. 4 in singles. She won the US Open against Serena Williams. SERENA WILLIAMS. She has 5 grand slam titles. And 28 career titles. But you’d never know it listening to the Australian press who can only talk about what a choker she is. Because apparently only singles grand slam titles count. Or something.

So here’s what I hate about contemporary sporting culture: that it’s all about winning. Sadly though I think that’s what sport’s pretty much always been focussed on. Fans turning on their idols because they lose a match is not a recent development.

I love watching Stosur play because you can see her fighting herself. Frankly, she reminds me of myself while writing. Some days it all goes so well; other days OMG stupid words! Why do you defy me?! Some days I fall to pieces. And I’m a writer. There is no opponent, there is no global audience watching my every move. If I were a tennis player I would be a much, much bigger head case than Stosur. Honestly I have no idea how they do their job day in day out with so many people watching and commentating on every move.

One of the reasons I love tennis is that it’s such a psychological sport. The more unemotional players who hold it together have never interested me nearly so much as the ones for whom the battle against themselves is almost as mighty as the battle against their opponent. It’s one of the reason I love Serena Williams’s play so much. She’s such a confidence player. I mean on top of just being amazing. Watching herself dig herself out of a hole—like she did at this year’s US Open—it is a thing of beauty and also of agony.

For another example of this insanity check out this tweet about the fact that Roger Federer one of the greatest players the game has ever seen is no longer winning every little thing:
“Do you think the great Swiss player is finished?”

I know what my response would be were I Federer. It would not be polite.

That’s another thing that drives me nuts. Why shouldn’t athletes keep playing their sport as long as they’re good enough to do so? It’s not like Federer needs a wild card to get into events. He’s still a highly ranked player. He’s just not number one any more. It’s total bullshit that he’s tarnishing his legacy. No, he’s not. No matter what he does now he will have still won a gazillion grand slams and been world number one for basically forever.

Athletes already have a shorter career that almost any other profession without us spectators and commentators howling from the stands that they’re finished because they’ve gone from world’s best ever to still pretty bloody good.

Well, felt good getting that sporting rant off my chest. As you all were.

  1. I feel that we are on first name basis now that we have been in the panel trenches together. []
  2. Australia remains one of the world’s wealthiest countries. []
  3. Except soccer. []
  4. I can’t even imagine how she feels about it. []