After losing three Ashes series on the bounce and following much soul-searching about the decline of its national sporting prowess, Australia is giving England a pounding in the cricket. For many, all is right again with the world.
Recently, I sat at Melbourne Airport as Australia’s resurgent fast bowler Mitchell Johnson – the butt of some cruel humour by visiting Barmy Army fans during his erratic, neurotic last home series – terrorised the English batsmen. Many people were watching the cricket on screen, with one fellow traveller loudly proclaiming:
There is no greater pleasure than sticking it to the Poms in the cricket!
As the dust settles after a decisive change of government, it is time for the main support players to call in their favours. Among the cheerleaders for a Coalition government, none was more vocal than the Murdoch media, which subjected a wounded Labor government to a barrage of obstreperous tabloid front pages, relentless broadsheet criticism, and a constant stream of syndicated hostility across its many platforms.
News Corp Australia was not shy about being led from the top in this campaign. Chairman Rupert Murdoch took to Twitter (with a characteristic apostrophic error) in June to declare:
Australian public now totally disgusted with Labor Party wrecking country with it’s [sic] sordid intrigues. Now for a quick election.
With mission accomplished, and after Murdoch’s Lowy Institute pep talk on “Australian values” and “the key drivers of prosperity: trade, technology and free market” last month, attention has turned to the juicy concessions that might be extracted from a sympathetic government.
An Ashes series – the latest set to commence in Brisbane – symbolically ushers in the Australian summer in a manner akin to the loud soundtrack of thrumming cicadas. The media will cover the sporting exploits with forensic intensity, but once again are using the Ashes to define and refine myths of Australian identity, masculinity and class.
The first blow in the most recent battle for the Ashes landed early and from an unanticipated angle. The body shot did not come from an Australian fast bowler’s short ball thudding into an England opener’s midriff. Instead, it was a little above-the-belt ridicule of the proposed content of a touring cricketer’s stomach.
The leaking of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s catering requirements and accompanying substantial recipe book stimulated a lot of mirth among Australian journalists and hard-bitten old players about the high-end dining demands of the visitors.
The wishlist of 194 food and drink options to be served up to the England team at Australian cricket venues contained a good deal of culinary exotica. It included the latest health-affirming wonderfare like quinoa and kale.
There was great play with requests for such gastronomic delights as “Buckwheat pancakes with probiotic yogurt and fresh berries” and “Raspberry and oat cranachan pots (protein-based maximuscle)”. Fairfax Media gleefully quoted the response of paunchy, moustachioed former Australian paceman Merv Hughes that he would “dry retch for the next three days” if presented with England’s serving suggestion of “Piri-piri breaded tofu with tomato salsa”.
Much was made of former Australian spinner Shane Warne’s proletarian preference for baked beans, pizza and coke when in his playing prime. Even the British tabloids felt that exposing England’s sophisticated dietary secrets would feed Australian hostility.
An opportunity for additional fun, though, was missed when the menu’s critics failed to notice that England’s meticulously prepared menu misspelt “dessert”. If detected, it would have prompted multiple puns about starving beefy cricketers in “health food deserts” or the supercilious English getting their “just deserts”.
Some of this response is obviously generic resentment at the privileged treatment of a small number of sportspeople (mostly men) in the era of global sports business. As the commercialisation of sport advances apace and the amateur ethos recedes into the world of the museum, both the media who live off commercial sport and the fans who pay for it complain about how celebrity sport professionals are now detached from the lives of common folk.
But as I wrote in a trilogy of articles on its implications for sport, nation and media during the last series in England, the Ashes phenomenon has a very specific history that recurrently replays and refashions the colonial history of its antagonists.
All the mirth about the English team management’s prescription of the likes of “hummus, black olive and sun-blushed tomato” is, in fact, an attempt to distinguish effete colonialist pretentiousness from the earthy authenticity of old-school Australians. This is a familiar and effective rhetorical move. And yet, it comes at the price of reproducing the stereotypes of beer-swilling, pie-scoffing unintellectual Australians that populate the ribald songs of rival Barmy Army fans.
It is difficult to see how, in an Australia that has made snobbery about caffeine, premium wine, boutique beer and food into a cross-country sport, there is much to gain by pretending that the national dish consists of instant coffee, chateau chunder, home brew and a Dagwood Dog.
There is another element of fantasy in fingering the English as food fad elitists – that unlike the Septic Isle, Australia is a steadfastly classless society. At a time when the quest to accumulate cultural capital through private schooling has never been so intense – and the Australian Bureau of Statistics describes the nation’s distribution of wealth as “asymmetric” and becoming more so – the faux classlessness of Aussie sporting mateship is exposed as a convenient smokescreen.
So, it should be clear that the animated response to MasterChef: Cricket and compulsive manufacture of other Ashes stories that play on images of national cultural identity says as much about contemporary Australia as it details the development of English cuisine in its post-fish-and-chips and warm beer phase.
Digesting the Ashes Cookbook demands much more than pondering the dietary virtues of “Papaya, glass noodle and prawn”. It offers instead a spicy smorgasbord of postcolonial dishes, marked by a clear preference for raw ideological ingredients and bubbling mythological hotpots, with a little dash of cricket on the side.
Christine Deftereos’ book Ashis Nandy and the Cultural Politics of Selfhood (SAGE publications) has just been released widely in Australia. It is of interest to a wide audience including those with an interest in Nandy’s work (India’s foremost public intellectual and postcolonial scholar), South Asian politics, cultural politics and social and cultural criticism. It will also have appeal to those interested in the debates on secularism within cultural sociology and the tensions within Indian modernity. The book is available in book stores and online.
Another foreign coach of an Australian national sports team has been ushered to the overseas departure terminal. Having overseen the team’s qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the Socceroos’ German coach Holger Osieck has been sacked only eight months out from the event.
Still, Osieck’s successor will have more time to get organised than Darren Lehmann. The former Australian player replaced South African Mickey Arthur as coach of Australia’s cricket team only two weeks before commencement of the last Ashes series in England.
Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie, who also once played for the team that he now coaches, took over from New Zealander Robbie Deans in July this year. Deans’ failures included his countrymen winning the 2011 Rugby World Cup and an unbroken series of Bledisloe Cups.
Is there a pattern emerging here? Could it be that foreign-born coaches, so often the epitome of cosmopolitan sporting sophistication, are now being supplanted by home grown talent?
Debates about nationality in sport are perennial, and extend far beyond the passports of coaches. Sport’s most prestigious national and international competitions are awash with capital from the media, sponsors, spectators and governments. This creates a ruthless, restless search for the best athletes, supported by the most able coaches.
For this reason, a global sport labour market has developed that I and colleagues describe as sport’s contribution to the New International Division of Cultural Labour. This is the apparatus through which athletes and coaches flow around the world, free of the confines of the individual nations that spawned them.
Sporting mobility has many dimensions. It involves young footballers from Africa and Australasia – and baseballers from Central America – supplying inexpensive and often-exploited athletic labour to cost-inflated sport markets in North America, Europe and East Asia. Or, as has recently been alleged in Australia, it may entail “journeyman” footballers and coaches moving into low-profile leagues around the world in order to fix matches at the behest of illegal gambling organisations in third-party countries.
At the top end of the global sport labour market there are elite players and coaches plying their trade in countries that pay handsomely to retain them. Their employers are haunted by the fear that they will be lured across borders by ever more extravagant rewards.
This geographical fluidity of personnel varies across sports and competitions. For example, there is negligible movement of Australian rules footballers between countries and there are few foreign players in Sheffield Shield cricket. The reasons are fairly obvious – the former lacks an international professional presence and the latter is a low-profile, poorly remunerated domestic competition.
By contrast, Australian players and coaches in rugby league and cricket substantially populate, respectively, the UK Super League and the Indian Premier League. In Olympic sports such as athletics, swimming, and cycling, there has also long been a vigorous trade in coaches in both directions.
What do sport fans and the sport media make of this fly-in, fly-out sporting workforce? Their reactions typically display the ambivalence attending a certain pride at a local player or coach making it in the big wide world, but also a sense of loss at the diminishing domestic sport scene.
Similarly, hiring an international marquee player or a renowned coach validates Australian sport’s global status, but also prompts concerns that importing overseas talent deprives locals of opportunities and ultimately stunts the development of domestic sport.
Sporting success tends to soothe such discomfort. But its absence invites little sympathy and, frequently, provokes hostile judgement.
In the specific case of soccer in Australia, the game’s development was long retarded by its close association with the world beyond its shores. For the xenophobic, the non-Anglo migrant ethnic bedrock of football symbolised a lack of commitment to its newfound, New World home.
The positioning of multicultural broadcaster SBS as the“home of football” confirmed the suspicions of those who demanded a closer affinity with the traditional Anglosphere. There was also a corresponding inferiority complex about the quality of the local game, meaning that the appointment of foreign coaches to the national team was favoured.
It has now been confirmed by Football Federation Australia chairman Frank Lowy that a local will take charge of the national team. But it is the sport’s troubled history that reveals why the strength of calls to appoint an Australian as Socceroos coach is indicative of the comparative health both of multiculturalism and of the world game in Australia.
Conventional advocacy of the recruitment of star overseas coaches such as Guus Hiddink has been overshadowed by arguments in favour of the likes of Ange Postecoglou andTony Popovic – respectively Australians of Greek and Croatian background. The once-bemoaned problem is now the suggested solution.
As it prepares for its third consecutive World Cup appearance and experiences a surge of interest in its domestic A-League, soccer in Australia occupies a mid-market position in world sport, attractive to itinerant and settled sports workers alike. This is something of an historical turnaround for a nation more accustomed to being a net exporter of its best personnel to Europe.
But, paradoxically, the demand for a home-grown coach may also betray a tinge of xenophobia. Having forsaken a foreign white knight or “rainmaker”, it is likely that more tolerance of failure will be temporarily extended to a coach who is “one of us”, and not the caricatured globally mobile gun for hire with no greater investment in the national soul than their latest sizeable paycheque.
Lingering doubts that a foreign coach’s heart isn’t really in it (or, worse, that they’re a Trojan horse) can be soothed by a belief that a local will have a deeper, more intuitive understanding of the players and the domestic game’s traditions. The home-grown coach might buy a little more time and sympathy, but if unsuccessful on the unforgiving field of play, the call of the global will be heard once more.
After the gladiatorial combat of the federal election campaign, prime minister-elect Tony Abbott appeared on Sunrise to call an Olympic-style truce.
Happy is the country which is more interested in sport than in politics, because it shows that there is a fundamental unity, it shows that the business of the nation is normally under reasonably good management if we can be as excited as we usually are about sport.
After the people had decided the fate of competing teams, sport could once again displace politics in Australia’s media.
A less familiar political force was also pleased to have sport back in the limelight. The Australian Sports Party (motto “Supporting Australia’s sporting culture”) had come from nowhere to take a screamer – in football parlance – and win a seat in the Senate. Very little is known about the Sports Party, except that it favours greater participation in sport and recreation in the interests of health, and more expansively believes that:
Sport has long played an important social and cultural role in Australia, providing a form of social glue which binds communities and creates broader communities.
Once again, sport’s place in Australian national life has been affirmed in the political sphere. Although subjected to the forces of globalisation and transnationalism like other social institutions, sport remains resolutely wedded to the very idea of an Australian nation. Throughout the distraction of the messily unheroic processes of parliamentary democracy, Australian bureaucracy has held its end up in the sporting stakes.
For example, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s glossy pamphlet Australia in Brief, designed for people wanting a quick summation of Australia, unequivocally pronounces that “Australians love sport” and that:
The nation unites when Australians succeed on the international stage. Sport is a powerful force in creating social harmony in a nation made up of people from so many different countries.
Those who want to become Australians rather than just know about them will find that in Australian Citizenship: Our Common Bond, the official information booklet for the citizenship test, “Australia’s identity” begins with “Sport and recreation”. This section precedes “The Arts” and “Scientific invention and achievement”. Aspiring citizens will learn that:
We are proud of our reputation as a nation of ‘good sports’. Australian sportsmen and women are admired as ambassadors for the values of hard work, fair play and teamwork. Throughout our history, sport has both characterised the Australian people and united us.
They will also get to know a little about Sir Donald Bradman.
Australia is not alone in promoting sport as an important part of its national culture and in explicitly relating it to citizenship, but it is unusual in giving so much emphasis to it. For example, sport features in Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship. But it is notable that under “Arts and Culture in Canada” it follows literature, visual arts, performing arts, film, and television. And under “Canadian Symbols” it is preceded by “Parliament Buildings”. Discover Canada makes no comparable claim definitively connecting sport to Canadian national identity as occurs in its Australian equivalent.
Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents does contain information on sport. Indeed, it has been described by one critic, Thom Brooks, as like a “bad pub quiz” and “impractical, inconsistent, trivial, gender imbalanced, outdated and ineffective”. But it comes well behind Australia in championing love of sport as an essential element of the national character.
The problem with projecting so much onto sport as a marker of the Australian nation is that it is not all about gold medals and glorious moments. What happens when things go seriously wrong on and off the sports field? If sport is integral to national identity, does it then follow that a crisis of sport is also a crisis of Australian national identity?
What is curious about Tony Abbott’s pleasure in sport returning to the front page is that, in 2013, it has rarely been off it – but for all the wrong reasons. Sport has been beset by repeated scandals that have tarnished the reputation of this “nation of good sports”. Lance Armstrong might have done his bit for the Americans, but this has been a vintage year for sport scandals in Australia.
In February, the release of the Australian Crime Commission report, Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport, heralded the so-called “blackest day” in Australian sport, and signalled a series of inquiries by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) that engulfed Essendon and Cronullafootball clubs. Performance reviews of Australian swimming uncovered “culturally toxic incidents”, “poor behaviour” and an apologetic conference by the male swimmers dubbed the“Stilnox Six”.
On the day that the prime minister-in-waiting announced his new ministry, the front pages were devoted not to ministers and parliamentary secretaries, but to a soccer match-fixing scandal in Victoria that has since extended to Queensland. Sport had again overshadowed government in the nation’s conversations with itself. For those who concur with Donald Horne’s famous dictum in The Lucky Country that “sport to many Australians is life and the rest a shadow”, order in the country has been restored.
But the match-fixing affair is one form of sporting excitement that the nation can surely do without.
This article is based on David Rowe’s 2013 Australian Sociological Association (TASA) 50th Anniversary Public Lecture, Sport: Scandal, Gender and the Nation, delivered at Parramatta Town Hall on Thursday September 12.
The mantra that “sport and politics don’t mix” was always false and misleading, but in the age of Twitter it’s absurd.
Calling for boycotts of high-profile sporting events is an established political tactic among social movements. The most recent case concerns the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia and the protest against new laws banning the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors”, which effectively criminalise the discussion of homo-, bi- and trans-sexuality with anyone under 18.
The omnipresent British television personality Stephen Fry has been especially active on the subject, even meeting with prime minister David Cameron in a London pub co-owned by revered actor and gay rights advocate Sir Ian McKellen. The campaign has received support from other prominent people, such as actor Rupert Everett, although a large-scale boycott is highly unlikely to eventuate.
Vladimir Putin has since signed a presidential decree banning all “gatherings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets that are not related to the Olympics and Paralympics” from January 7 to March 21, 2014. Special controls are always introduced in mega sport event zones, but Putin’s suppression of any public assembly that is not part of the official Olympic show is clearly designed to stifle all local dissent concerning gay or any other rights.
It is easier to boycott a brand than an event, with the Dump Russian Vodka campaign causing the Stolichnaya CEO to condemn the laws in an open letter and its website to pledge support to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) that awarded the games to Sochi and the principal Olympic broadcaster ABC have received similar pressure, including a petition from Athlete Ally and All Out urging:
…the International Olympic Committee and world leaders to call for the elimination of discriminatory laws that persecute the LGBT community.
Social movement mobilisation using the threat of a sporting boycott has a long, varied history. Despite urging, the 1936 Berlin “Nazi” Olympics was not boycotted by the major Olympic nations of the day; while a whole nation, South Africa, was boycotted by many sports and countries for over two decades during the apartheid era. This sporting sanction has been widely acknowledged as highly effective in isolating and weakening a racist regime.
Among the most contentious boycotts was promoted by the United States government and targeted the 1980 Moscow Olympics to protest against the invasion of Afghanistan. This prompted a retaliatory Eastern bloc no-show at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Since then, and especially following the advent of the internet, mega sport events have regularly attracted loud media-directed protests and threatened boycotts.
The reason for using sport as a focus for political action is fairly obvious. Hosting global sport spectacles like the Olympics and FIFA World Cup involves vast expense and an enormous exercise in image management. Cities and nations compete vigorously to secure the prize, and the competitors seek any advantage, including direct or implied accusations that a host is unworthy to receive the honour.
It is believed, for example, that Australia narrowly defeated China in the 1993 ballot for the 2000 Olympics because some countries, with the orchestrated encouragement of the Australian bid team, were troubled by China’s human rights record.
Ironically, there were concerns that several African countries would, at the invitation of some of Australia’s aggrieved Indigenous people, boycott Sydney 2000. Also faced with a potential Aboriginal boycott – including calls for figurehead Cathy Freeman to refuse to participate – the Sydney 2000 Olympic Bid Ltd put considerable effort into closely involving Aboriginal people in the Cultural Olympiad, the lighting of the cauldron, and in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies.
Having learnt a bitter lesson, China left nothing to chance when next bidding for the Games in 2001, hiring Western public relations companies to soften its image. Having won the bid, however, China then saw worldwide protests and demands to boycott Beijing 2008, culminating in the nightly news fiasco of the Torch Relay passing through Europe and North America surrounded by heavy security and jeering crowds.
In neither case did a boycott ensue, but its threat is always potent because mega sport events depend on the sustained projection of universal human amity that, however flawed, cannot allow the illusion to be shattered by pointed absences. When these holes in the global sporting fabric occur, instead of highlighting the host’s advantages and positive accomplishments, unwelcome attention turns to their blemishes and failures.
Because such image battles are fought in the media, and mega sport is nothing if not a media spectacle, boycott calls are never far away. This technique turns the attention-seeking rationale of global sport event impression management against itself. Hence, in recent times there have been attempts to boycott:
the Euro 2012 football championship over political repression in co-host Ukraine
the London 2012 Games because of “NATO war crimes” in Iraq and Afghanistan
the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Brazil because of corruption and mass evictions
the 2018 Russia and 2022 Qatar FIFA World Cups over gay rights.
There are many other examples.
With Australia hosting the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, and Australasia the ICC World Cup in the same year, it can be predicted safely that boycott calls will ensue over issues such as the treatment of asylum seekers.
Sport and politics don’t just mix – they’re married with children.