A Nation of “Good Sports”‘? Cultural Citizenship and Sport in Contemporary Australia

| July 24, 2014

The national government and its agencies tend uncritically to reproduce the mythology of universal Australian love of sport. David Rowe is head of a project in ethnically diverse Greater Western Sydney, exploring if it still can be assumed that sport plays a unifying role in this country.

As the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow gets up to full speed soon after the Socceroos have returned from the World Cup in Brazil, it is timely to consider what sport means to a nation such as contemporary Australia.

Sportspeople engaged in international competitions are regarded as actual and symbolic representatives of Australia, and sport itself a key – perhaps defining – national cultural institution.  But sport and nation do not stand still, and their relationship changes with the various social and cultural tides, such as the globalisation of pastimes, the development of transnational cultures, and the movement of people and media across national borders.

The Australian Research Council Discovery Project currently in progress of which I am Chief Investigator, A Nation of ‘Good Sports’? Cultural Citizenship and Sport in Contemporary Australia, addresses sport’s role regarding ‘cultural citizenship’, which broadly refers to how forms of culture (ranging from high art to cricket) operate in ways that foster a sense of inclusion or exclusion among citizens.

There is no more suitable place in Australia to conduct this study than Greater Western Sydney, Australia’s most ethnically diverse conurbation of approaching two million people. Many sports are vying for participants and spectators in the region, including four National Rugby League clubs, Australian Football League club the Greater Western Sydney Giants (founded in 2009), and A-League soccer club the Western Sydney Wanderers (founded in 2012).

But as the nation is in transition both in population size and in its multicultural composition, is the place of sport in question? With so many people connected to multiple countries and cultures, some of whom may prefer different sports than the usual ones celebrated in Australia, or who may not even care very much for sport at all, can it still be safely assumed that sport plays a unifying role in the country?

Of course, not everyone in Australia has been equally attached to sport, and some are even hostile to it as ‘mass distraction’. Similarly, sport can also be divisive, sometimes encouraging partisanship that spills over into violence, or is implicated in such social iniquities as xenophobia, racism, sexism and homophobia.

However, the national government and its agencies tend uncritically to reproduce the mythology of universal Australian love of sport and of sport’s uniformly positive impact on the nation. In fact, the research project’s title is taken from Australian Citizenship: Our Common Bond, the official information booklet designed to assist those taking the Australian citizenship test. It opens its section on ‘Australia’s identity’ with ‘Sport and recreation’, stating that, “Many Australians love sport and many have achieved impressive results at an international level.  We are proud of our reputation as a nation of ‘good sports’”.

This deep connection of ‘Australianness’ to sport is then linked to a bigger claim – that sport is inherently inclusive and so crucial to cultural citizenship: “Sport also provides a common ground that allows both players and spectators to feel included and a part of something that is important to Australian society”.

It is these assumptions – which here take on the status of official wisdom – that A Nation of ‘Good Sports’? explores through interviews and focus groups with people across Greater Western Sydney with various cultural backgrounds and histories.  I am interested in sport’s position (if any) in their lives – whether and what they play and watch, and, importantly, their use of various media sport platforms, including overseas sport programs available through satellite and the Internet.

Of particular relevance is the question of divided loyalties – how people negotiate the competing pressures to support Australian national teams and individuals when their households are intimately connected to other national cultures, including speaking another language in the home.

When the project is completed Australia may indeed be demonstrated to be A Nation of ‘Good Sports’, but the complexities of different sporting tastes and variable national loyalties are likely to sketch a rather different picture than that suggested by Donald Horne’s famous 1960s aphorism in The Lucky Country that, “Sport to many Australians is life and the rest a shadow.   

Perhaps the reverse will be shown in some cases – “Sport to many Australians is a shadow and the rest is life”. After all, 21st century Australia is a very different place and the sport-nation nexus is in various respects changing with it.