To the always-eloquent John Clarke, our love affair with sport tells us way more than just our love affair with sport.
It tells us who we are as a nation.
In his new 3 part series Sporting Nation on ABC1, Clarke uses the backdrop of sport to look closer at our culture and ultimately to ask deeper philosophical questions.
Sport, he contends, is deeply embedded in Australians. As a Kiwi-turned-Aussie, Clarke says you’re not a fully-accredited citizen unless you either play sport or watch it.
“It’s a very general statement designed to make sure that everybody’s in one of those two catchments. Even if you don’t watch sport consciously, you do watch it unconsciously because there’s so much of it on telly and you can’t drive around in a car without seeing something,” he says.
“I was walking past a building in town the other day and there were people climbing a rock inside a building.
“There’s nowhere you can go in this country where there’s not sport.
“So the point is not that’s it’s your choice but that it’s unavoidable.”
Television is of course, also integral to the prevalence of sport. Live sport especially so.
“It’s total cultural dominance. I mean The Voice and MasterChef type productions where they blast the media across the board with a huge amount of publicity…. with the exception of those big blockbuster programmes, live sport is the only thing on television where you have to actually be at the television at the time that it starts. Everything else you can record, go onto iView or get on DVD. But it’s pointless with live sport because you don’t want to know the result,” he says.
For his series he interviews Olympic champions, coaches, commentators and former Prime Ministers including Herb Elliott, Dawn Fraser, Marjorie Jackson, Shane Gould (pictured), Robert DiPierdomenico, Bob Hawke, Malcolm Fraser, Kieren Perkins, Mark Ella, Ric Charlesworth, John Bertrand and more.
He learns its about more than adrenaline and testosterone.
“If we think sport is only sport, then we’ve missed the point. It’s Australian history through the prism of sport, because it’s one of the most useful prisms to look at Australian history,” he says.
“It’s our our social history, commercial history, business history, all sorts of bits of history.
“It’s also the general history of the 20th Century. When Bradman’s team went to England they went on a boat. When Marjorie Jackson went to the Olympics she flew in a plane and it took a week to get to Finland. The first stopover was in Darwin.
“Now a lot of our very elite sportspeople don’t live here at all. They visit here. Cadel Evans describes himself in the second episode as ‘An Italian and French-speaking Swiss resident employed by an American company riding all over the world as an Australian.’
“But that’s the way the professional sport circuit works.”
While the first episode focusses on the nation’s love affair with the 1956 Olympics, other episodes move into the 1970s and proceed to the present.
“The Second episode begins with the failure of Olympic performances in 1976 and then the rebuild of Australia’s sporting prestige through the development of the Institute of Sport which takes 15 years or so. While that happens we get fascinated by domestic sport which is exactly the same time it becomes a television programme through Packer cricket and the televising of AFL and NRL,” Clarke says.
“One of my contentions is that when you’re not going so well in international sport it’s a great comfort to watch domestic sport. Because in domestic sport Australia never loses.
“In domestic sport you need a lot of players and team sports, and in team sports you have players with funny names who are the children of migrants like Jesaulenko and DiPierdomenico. They help Australian society understand the benefits of the big migration boom. They were still called ‘wogs’, but we came to love them because they did things we loved. They took in fabulous marks and won premierships and all that.”
But does sport embrace multiculturalism and diversity at the same rate as our wider society? Not necessarily. Asian, African and openly gay sports players don’t yet enjoy the same representation in all codes.
“Roy Masters says in episode 2 about race that the AFL considers itself the lofty custodian of a lot of these ethical issues but actually the NRL’s done stuff miles beforehand.”
By the final episode, Clarke arrives at some wider questions for us all.
“There are 17 million obese or overweight people in Australia and one of the main places that fast food advertises is in live sport. Drink is advertised in live sport and there are exemptions from the law to enable that to happen. It’s now possible to bet live on the sport you’re watching on live television,” he says.
“One of my questions, I suppose, is if this business of Australia being a sporting nation is a fact then what are we doing with these problems?
“If you’re going to look at yourself in a mirror and you don’t like what you see it’s not the mirror’s fault.”
Such is the appeal of Clarke that even if sport isn’t really your thing, he manages to make it entertaining. He does love a good yarn after all.
“I’m not really an interviewer. I don’t know how to interview people, but I like having a chat with them and getting them to tell a story. And the stories are just fantastic.”
Sporting Nation airs 7:30pm Sunday on ABC1.