September 2012

The Nation Reviewed

Gold is good

By Waleed Aly
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
The Olympics, Sport and National Pride

With Olympic fever now in remission, surely the time has arrived for perspective. I think I know how this goes.

First, declare the only enlightened position: that the Australian obsession with winning medals is puerile, and that by extension anyone who is concerned or even moderately deflated by Australia’s below-par performance in London is worthy only of derision. Meanwhile, lampoon the sense of vicarious achievement the rest of us derive from our athletes as we slump ever more proudly into our couches.

Next, resist the dangerous suggestion of extra funding for Olympic sport. Argue it should be slashed because we’re already spending too much. Only grassroots participation in sport counts because that is a matter of public health, and no one gets healthy watching Sally Pearson win a gold medal. Enough support for our elite athletes. What of the homeless, the disabled and the artists – especially the artists?

Sorry to disappoint, but I don’t buy it. At least not completely. Take the question of funding. The argument that it should be siphoned to important areas like health or housing can be raised against any spending that isn’t a matter of life and death. If we’re honest, all of us jealously guard some brand of non-essential spending. While we suffer under-resourced schools, why should we fund opera? Or ballet? Or swank diplomatic schmooze-fests? Juxtapose anything like this against some stark material need and most government grants look unjustifiable.

Going too far down this line of thinking simply ends up stripping away refinement. Societies need more than the survival of their members. They are constituted through narrative, mythology, expression, pride, emotion and soul. This is why I don’t get angry when I see a piece of publicly funded contemporary dance I happen to think is awful or pretentious. I don’t demand such things be tailored to my tastes and nor should, say, an imperfect education system preclude their existence. That’s how you build great cities, and through them great nations. I’d love to see more arts funding. Not because I may like the arts but because I think they are important.

That’s probably a fashionable position. Why is it dramatically less chic to apply the same reasoning to elite sport? It can hardly be because artists are more destitute than Olympians, most of whom work full time to sustain their training. Really, it’s a bald value judgement: only bogans derive something meaningful from Olympic success, unlike the refined souls who get by imbibing symphonies. Ergo, elite sport simply isn’t important; it contributes nothing meaningful to Australian culture and society.

Bollocks. Sport, no less than art, is culture. It generates communal reference points, produces chapters and characters in our national story and tells social history. Phar Lap and Bradman are not simply sporting figures; they are Depression figures, much as Herb Elliott and Betty Cuthbert announced a new, bright postwar Australia. The historical antipathy between Carlton and Collingwood is not just about premierships: it is the story of Australian class disparity. Indeed, the very creation of Australian Rules football, by a rogue Australian sportsman who rejected cultural subservience to Britain and spent a lot of time with Aboriginal people, is a statement of national independence and irreverence: the kind that allows forward passes and dispenses with such stifling traditions as the offside rule.

Sport, then, shapes social norms just as it reflects them. Bradman did not merely conquer the English, he attacked them. His performances during the infamous Bodyline series were about more than runs: they spoke of an Australian valiantly resisting a nation which held its antipodean colony in such contempt that it was happy to do all but cheat outright on the field, while lecturing us on Depression-era frugality off it. Bradman was helping us articulate a national identity.

And that’s the key. More than most other nations, we package our culture and our character in sport. We produce world-class actors, musicians, dancers, scientists, lawyers, philosophers and even internet hackers, but our athletes are somehow more ambassadorial. The result is that sport is a large part of how we tell our story to ourselves, and to others.

In this context, the Olympics play a significant, unique role. If Bradman helped to define our relationship with the mother country, the Olympics are about our position in the world. Our mythology does not have us topping the medal tally. But it does have us doing better than we should, which is why silver is fine, but gold is, at some point, necessary. The thought that an Aboriginal girl from Mackay could go on to be the best in the world (note how often we mention the small-town origins of our champions) is irresistibly intoxicating. It feeds our mythology that we are the little nation that could, vanquishing bigger, older, more powerful foes against the odds. It’s deeply symbolic: no event is more truly international than the Olympics, and to succeed on that stage declares that we can succeed on others. It tells us we matter.

A sign of insecurity, sure. Maybe a national identity built more squarely on education or health care or scientific achievement would be nobler. But as national mythologies go, we could do much, much worse. Most nations do. We could build our collective sense of self on conquest, empire, civil war, race, ethnicity or religious exclusion. Such totems are magnetic, and even a nation as young as ours flirts with them in its darker moments.

But their very power lies in the fact that they are exclusionary, closed. Sport is broadly open. It is innately, if imperfectly, a meritocracy. Yes, there are barriers – working-class Olympic rowers are probably unusual and we still underrate our disabled athletes – but the borders are remarkably permeable. Few other spheres of public life present so much diversity in such a compelling way. Politics doesn’t. Theatre isn’t even close.

This doesn’t automatically mean sport needs more government money – that might depend on how well current funding was spent in the first place – but it does mean that our Olympic performance isn’t trivial. It means we are entitled to care, to be disappointed with the London campaign and even try to redress it.

Now consider Britain, which through these Games discovered a rare, inclusive form of patriotism. This may be short-lived. Britain is far more weighed down by history, and is far more ethnically defined than we are. These things do not recede easily. Even so, a powerful recasting of national symbols was at work. As Richard Williams observed in the Guardian, the closing ceremony “reminded those suspicious of raucous patriotism of how great the union flag suddenly looked when it was ripped out of the hands of the extreme right and wrapped around the shoulders of Jessica Ennis or Mo Farah.”

Think about that. Britain’s latest national legend is a Somalian refugee named Mohammed. A columnist for Britain’s arch-conservative Telegraph conceded that Farah’s extraordinary golden double in distance running meant “that something deep in the psyche will begin to shift”. Now look at Canberra. Just at the moment, we could really do with a hero like that.

Waleed Aly

Waleed Aly is a writer, broadcaster and academic.

Cover: September 2012
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