At the threshold of the twenty-first century, sport has become the almost universal signifier of national identity. Nations define themselves, not by how well they work, or how valiantly they fight, or how creatively they think, but by how skilfully and spectacularly they play. Sport is a language that transcends speech, with its own gestures and rituals instantly recognised across the globe. A hundred years ago other forms of national competition, such as trade and war, were more important. But in the late twentieth century, as the spectre of global war receded and technology lost some of its allure, nations new and old looked to their sportspeople, rather than their soldiers and statesmen, to carry the nation’s standard.
War, its great theorist Baron von clausewitz famously declared, was ‘diplomacy carried on by other means’. Following him, we might now say that ‘sport is warfare carried on by other means’. In his 1906 lecture ‘The Moral Equivalent of War’, the American psychologist William James pondered the possibility of channelling the warlike tendencies of European nations into more benign activities, such as social service. But, as the historian Peter Gay davisobserves in his magisterial study of the collective psychology of the era, a more effective antidote to youthful violence had already appeared in the rising enthusiasm of bourgeois Europeans for organised sport. ‘If you provided them with footballs … they would not be so inclined to kick policemen in the street,’ an English parliamentary inquiry suggested.1 Now every youth has a football and the rest of us watch them play. But policemen still get kicked—sometimes by football fans—and sport may itself occasionally approach the intensity of war. ‘This is not sport, it’s war,’ America’s Cup yachtsman Alan Bond exclaimed in the midst of his 1983 America’s Cup challenge. But everyone knew—or hoped—that he was speaking figuratively.
Nations, Benedict Anderson argues, are ‘imagined communities’, present in the mind before they become states or territories.2 By enabling geographically dispersed peoples to follow the affairs of the nation, new forms of mass communication, such as newspapers, created communities that were more imagined than real. Nineteenth-century nationalism, Anderson argues, was a product of ‘print capitalism’, although he acknowledges that mass spectacles, such as days of national commemoration, international exhibitions, national museums and international sporting contests, also played a powerful nationalising role. By the mid twentieth century the newspaper was rivalled by more instantaneous forms of communication, such as radio and television. The communications satellite and the Internet have now created a yet more immediate sense of community or interconnectedness.
International sporting contests take place in a space that is both literal—the pitch, arena, court, pool or track where the athletes compete—and figurative: the multimillion-seat grandstand of viewers and readers across the world who follow the contest from their own living rooms. The athletes are said to ‘represent’ their compatriots and in winning they bring ‘honour’ to the nation as a whole. How do they know that this honour has been won? Only partly, I suggest, from the plaudits of their fellow nationals. Nations also continually perform their identity for an imaginary grandstand of international spectators. We have twisted a noun into a uniquely Australian verb—‘grandstanding’—to denote this tendency to play or act ‘in an ostentatious or self-important way in order to attract public or media attention’. When Australians seek to describe their national identity they are often playing to the imaginary grandstand. ‘Consider how often we find an imaginary visitor sitting looking over our shoulder when Australians set about describing themselves,’ Richard White perceptively notes.3 The outsiders do not have to be visitors; now it is often the Australians who visit them, as sportspeople, film stars, or other ‘cultural ambassadors’. Even games such as Australian Rules football, whose appeal is almost entirely local, seek the applause of an international grandstand, though it may only be a handful of loyal expats at an end-of-season exhibition game in London or Dublin.
The habit of seeing ourselves through the eyes of the imaginary other is the most lasting mental relic of colonialism. Colonial Australians were anxious to win the good opinion of Mother England. They first learned to play out their embryonic sense of national identity on English cricket fields. On the first Australian cricket tour, the Aboriginal team of 1868 was subjected to the critical gaze of the British press. ‘The Australians showed themselves, by their fielding, worthy opponents to the best English cricketers,’ observed the London Daily Telegraph in an article that was later reproduced in the colonial press. Other observers were less approving. ‘Their conduct has been uniformly good, but their running and jumping did not come up to expectations, in consequence of the whole party being so stout after their voyage.’ The terms of that first encounter, in which the untutored athleticism of the Australian bowler and fielder was contrasted with the finesse of the English gentleman-batsman, prefigured the way in which the contest was seen for more than century. Australian cricket, a London periodical noted in 1894, was ‘decidedly colonial, agricultural and uncouth’.4
As a surrogate for war, sport allows nations to express latent tensions as friendly rivalries. Colonial Australians were loyal sons and daughters of the Empire, but the relationship was not always an easy one. By the end of the nineteenth century, as the colonies moved towards federation, sport was the arena in which Australia first rehearsed its identity as a united and independent state. The depression of the 1890s had introduced a new acerbity to relations between Britain and Australia that imperialists were eager to dissipate. The Anglo-Australian sports administrator Richard Coombes championed a Pan-Britannic Festival as a venue for friendly sporting rivalry within the Empire. ‘While politics estrange friends, athletics widen and warm the circle of friendship on every hand,’ he observed. Sport was supposed to have a special significance to peoples of British descent. ‘Before we are political, or even a commercial and military people, we are a race of keen sportsmen,’ the imperialist journal Greater Britain noted. Coombes’ plan for intercolonial competition under the umbrella of Empire permitted a qualified form of Australian national identity. His Pan-Britannic Festival was later realised in the form of the Empire and Commonwealth Games. Meanwhile, however, his rival Baron Pierre de Coubertin successfully launched a more ambitious scheme for athletic competition on a completely international basis, the modern Olympic Games.5
As the biggest grandstand of all, the Olympics posed a dilemma for Australian patriots. Should Australians compete as members of a larger British Empire team or as a smaller band under their own flag? The middle-distance runner Edwin Flack, usually credited as Australia’s first gold medallist, had sought selection for the 1896 Olympics as a member of a London athletic club and received his medal under the Union Jack. By the early years of federation, Australian representation had become a more contentious matter. The Times vigorously stated the case for the Empire. ‘It would be vastly better to be associated with a powerful Empire team, the flag of which everybody at the Games knows and respects.’ But by the 1912 Stockholm Olympics Australians, together with New Zealanders, had gained separate national representation. National representation was a question of both patriotism and national promotion. The Sydney Morning Herald noted on 30 October of that year:
At present any competitor sent from Australia competes in the Games as an Australasian, and any victory credited to him is recognised by the hoisting of the Australian flag. Apart from all questions of loyalty to the Empire, there is a narrower patriotism for Australia, which is certainly gratified by the present system, which is also a tremendous advertisement to this continent. And in this advertisement lies the Australian [Olympic] Council’s main hope in financing an Australian team.6
By using the terms ‘Australian’ and ‘Australasian’ almost interchangeably the Herald reflected the contemporary custom of Australians and New Zealanders seeking joint representation in many international contests, such as the Davis Cup. In seeking recognition as nationals rather than colonials Australians were making a calculated choice: that their share of the collective glory of a large Empire team would be exceeded by the undivided glory of a much smaller and less conspicuous Australian team. The calculation was bound to be a rough and ready one, since no-one could really estimate the quantum of glory, and the grandstand for which the Australians were playing was, in any case, often more imaginary than real.
Moreover, the playing field on which this exchange of mutual identities took place was not a level one. The idea of an ‘international arena’ suggests that the contest takes place in real time before an audience both of nationals and rivals. But in the era before jet travel and satellite communications news of the contest could take hours or days to reach many of the figurative spectators. It was not the match itself that they witnessed but a textual or aural version that screened out much of what a player or spectator at the ground itself would have seen or heard. One nation may have seen the contest directly as spectators at the ground, cheering their side on, jeering at their opponents, but the other witnessed it only remotely through newspaper articles, radio broadcasts or television broadcasts.
The ‘Bodyline’ Test series of 1932–33 was probably the most serious crisis in British–Australian relations in more than a century. The tensions on the field mirrored the financial and political strains generated by the economic collapse of the Great Depressiion. In popular Australian imagination, English captain Douglas Jardine and Bank of England envoy Sir Otto Niemeyer each epitomised the Britannia that either ruthlessly invoked, or capriciously ‘waived’, the rules according to her own self-interest. Seen from the English end, the ‘offensive, vulgar and outrageous behaviour of the ill-bred sections of the Australian crowds’ (the words are Harold Larwood’s) was no more than to be expected of the compatriots of the loan-defaulting NSW Labor premier Jack Lang.
The bitterness of the ‘Bodyline’ controversy was accentuated by the tilted playing field on which the series was played. Only a few thousand Australians and a handful of English players, journalists and officials witnessed with their own eyes the actions that ignited the dispute—the aggressive ‘leg-theory’ bowling of Larwood and Voce at the Melbourne and Adelaide tests. But at its height the controversy excited the passions of millions more who followed the game indirectly through the press reports, radio broadcasts (it was the first cricket series to be broadcast direct in Australia), newsreels and gossip. Many cricket followers were on holiday and could listen in at home and hear descriptions of play and the comments of members of the batting team at the conclusion of each innings. Melbourne’s Sun News-Pictorial boasted that it could send action photographs of the test by air from Adelaide to Melbourne in 322 minutes. On the morning of 18 January 1933 its front page was covered with shocking photos of the Australian wicket-keeper Bert Oldfield slumping to the ground after being hit on the head by a bouncing delivery from Harold Larwood. English cricket followers, on the other hand, enjoyed a much less direct connection with the game. They saw no photographs or newsreels until weeks after the event. The BBC broadcast only a short summary at breakfast time each morning. And those who relied on the sporting pages of The Times would have had to read three-quarters of the way down the column before learning that Oldfield had been carried off the field with a suspected skull fracture.7
Bodyline challenged traditional understandings of national identity. ‘There are two teams out there. One is trying to play cricket and the other is not,’ the wounded Australian captain Bill Woodfull protested to England manager pelham Warner. By accusing Jardine and his team of ‘unsportsman-like’ conduct, the Australian Board of Control hit the English where it hurt most. It was usually the Australians who were suspected of not understanding the difference between the written and ‘unwritten’ rules of cricket. By accusing the Australians of ‘squealing’, on the other hand, Lord Dartmouth, Jardine and the English press had also touched a sensitive nerve. ‘Squealing’ is what criminals do when they betray their accomplices to the police. So in English eyes the Australians were not only revealing their convict ancestry, but their inability to uphold even a thieves’ code of honour.
As far as Australians were concerned, there were only two groups of spectators whose opinion mattered in 1932–33, the English and the Australians. As the controversy continued, Australian broadsheets published long extracts from the English press, especially the opinions of writers such as Neville Cardus who supported the Australian viewpoint. Meanwhile the quality London dailies reinforced England’s perspective with supportive editorials from South Africa and New Zealand. Bodyline was a family dispute, but it wasn’t only Mother England and Young Australia who were brawling. The sister dominions were only too grateful for an opportunity to curry favour with Mother by administering a cuff or two to their ‘squealing’ sibling. ‘We can … regard ourselves as fortunate in New Zealand that our cricket is below Test standard,’ a Kiwi journalist remarked. ‘It would be better to turn Lancaster Park or the Basin Reserve into a Roman arena or into bear pits than allow them to be used for the unseemly exhibitions served up in the last month or two in Australia.’8 The Australians played to a grandstand full of Englishmen and Australians. They often forgot, as they do still, that the outer end of the ground was full of attentive Maori, Springboks, Jamaicans and Indians. While the memory of Bodyline rankles with Australians, they seldom recall the slights delivered to their cricket ‘inferiors’, such as Trevor Chappell’s notorious underarm delivery in a 1981 one-day match against New Zealand, or consider how their own actions will be interpreted in Kingston or Calcutta.
Sport has often been likened to a form of warfare, and both have been compared to the art of politics. Some Australian leaders—Bruce, Hawke and Holt, for example—enjoyed a reputation as active sportsmen. Paul Keating was a rarity, not only in despising sport but also, according to his recent biographer, in believing that sports-worship threatened national maturity.9 It was Robert Menzies, however, who first defined the role of the prime minister as the nation’s leading spectator-sportsman. (In this, as in other respects, John Howard is his faithful, if unconvincing, disciple.) Menzies’ image as a cricket lover was an integral part of the self-conscious Englishness that framed his political outlook, connected him with the Australian electorate. Cricket exemplified his conception of British fair play and decency. His regular trips to England were usually timed to coincide with the cricket season, when visits to Chequers and the Guildhall were interspersed with matches at Lord’s or Headingley. In 1948 he had astutely identified himself with Bradman’s all-conquering touring team, often attending matches in the company of Pelham Warner, whose sympathy for the Australians during the Bodyline controversy had earned popular respect in Australia. In 1956 the British government offered him the use of a special Daimler car equipped with television so that the Australian prime minister could watch the cricket as he travelled. By 1965 the cricket motif in Menzies’ English diplomacy had become so conspicuous that he protested to a journalist that ‘he wished some people would give up the idea that he was going to England to see the cricket’, when he only intended to take in two or three days.10
While Menzies’ cricket pilgrimages sometimes stirred accusations of self-indulgence, his enthusiastic first-hand reports for Australian newspapers established a personal link with an Australian public still obliged to follow the game at a geographical and temporal remove. In the 1950s and 1960s Australian cricket devotees sat up all night, with rugs and hotwater bottles, listening to the crackling radio commentaries of John Arlott and Arthur Gilligan. By making himself the eyes and ears of an enthusiastic cricketing public, and cultivating the personal friendship of leading players, Menzies established a triangular relationship between himself as political father-figure, Britain as the Mother Country, and a filial Australian public.
Even when the sun of Empire had set, Australians continued to look out rather than in, up rather than down for images of themselves. ‘The periphery constructs itself as the metropolis likes to see it,’ Richard White aptly observes. By the 1950s, the imaginary grandstands were often filled with Americans and the game they were watching was not cricket but tennis. Australia had competed successfully against the USA since 1908 when Norman Brookes and New Zealander Anthony Wilding won the Davis Cup challenge round. Only after the Second World War, however, as American and Australian strategic interests became more firmly aligned, did the friendly tussle on the tennis court acquire a larger significance. In 1951, the year of the ANZUS Treaty, when Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor retained the cup, the New York Times nicely captured the mutual admiration developing between the new allies:
Well Done Australia!
The Davis Cup, most potent symbol in tennis, will remain in Australia for another year. Our best efforts to lift it were not good enough. It would be less than honest to suggest that we enjoy another defeat, but if we have to lose the Cup again we can at least say of our Australian friends, ‘It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy!’
Our tennis association with Australia has been a happy one. For us it is studded with the names of some of the greatest names in the sport, the men who have carried the Australian colors. This challenge round, like the others brings back the memories of Brookes and Wilding, Patterson and Anderson, Bromwich and Quist. Now younger players will claim their right to be mentioned in the same paragraph if not the same breath. These have been splendid athletes, good sportsmen, warm and firm friends. May Australia enjoy a merited possession of the Cup for another year. We will try and take it away again if we can, but we know we will have to produce the best tennis in the world to do so.
‘Nice guys, splendid athletes, good sportsmen, warm and good friends’: the accolades, with their implications of mutual respect tinged by condescension, would become the staple of American diplomacy towards Australia throughout the Cold War era. ‘Well Played Australia!’ the New York Times again exclaimed after the exciting 1953 challenge round. ‘We can’t honestly pretend that we enjoy our Davis Cup team taking a beating, but if we have to absorb it, we couldn’t take it from better friends and nicer fellows than the Australians.’11
The ‘nice guy’—friendly, modest, wholesome and sportsmanlike—is the face that Australians prefer to present to the international grandstand. From Sedgman, through John Landy and Murray Rose down to Pat Rafter and Ian Thorpe, a line of sporting heroes have upheld Australia’s image as a country of ‘nice guys’. There have been ‘nice gals’ too, such as Betty Cuthbert and Shane Gould. A more complete taxonomy of sporting heroes would include at least three other types. The ‘professional’ (Bradman, Herb Elliott, the Chappells, Rod Laver) is the disciplined, often unsmiling, technician. The ‘larrikin’ (Doug Walters, Dawn Fraser, Pat Cash, Jai Taurema) plays on a mixture of guts and natural athleticism, is careless of the rules and often contemptuous towards officialdom. In recent years, when competitive individualism has reigned supreme, a new type, the ‘brat’ (Shane Warne, Lleyton Hewitt)—egotistical, rude and aggressive—has made his appearance. Australians may respect the professionals, love the larrikins and indulge the brats, but it is the nice guys they hope the rest of the world is watching.
The gestures of mutual respect exchanged at the end of the 1951 challenge round did not necessarily correspond with the feelings of the contestants. Tennis, primarily an individual sport, was an unlikely vehicle for an international team competition. The Davis Cup, then and now, represents a delicate balance between individual ambition and national loyalty. Prime Minister Menzies touched on the dilemma in 1957: ‘International contests are like that. Individuals play in them, and play with superb skill, but the overall contestant is the nation.’ In the early 1950s Australians witnessed a dramatic playing out of these tensions as, one by one, their champions—Sedgman, McGregor, Hoad, rosewall, Laver—were lured by American entrepreneur Jack Kramer from amateur into professional ranks and out of Davis Cup contention. It sometimes seemed—I write from the vantage-point of a twelve-year-old autograph hunter at Kooyong in 1953—that Uncle Sam was shaking the Australian champions’ hand with one hand, and offering a fistful of dollars with the other.
Americans naturally saw the struggle from a different angle. In the USA, tennis was an elite sport and most of the prominent players were current or former college champions. After the ‘teenage twins’ Hoad and rosewall defeated Seixas and Trabert in 1953, American captain Donald Talbert observed ruefully:
rosewall and Hoad were developed in a single year. There is no reason why our country with more than 150 million people, can’t do the same thing. We are not able to take boys out of school, regiment them and send them on world tours as Australia does, but there must be some good plan for development, and our lawn tennis association needs to find the answer whatever it is.
Australians saluted the democratic victory of working-class lads over the privileged youth of the most powerful country in the world. Some Americans shared their view, but others—like Talbert—saw genuine amateurs up against educationally deprived automatons. He championed American liberty against Australian ‘regimentation’.12
In contests between Britain and Australia, Australians were often portrayed as ruthless professionals compared with Britain’s ‘gentlemen’. (It was precisely the reversal of these conventional roles that made the ‘Bodyline’ series so bitter.) In contests with the USA, on the other hand, Australia was usually seen as a younger brother or ‘buddy’. The relationship was implicitly fraternal, rather than paternal, and the shared values were democratic. The sports in which they competed, however, were not those of America’s democracy—baseball, basketball or gridiron—but of its self-styled aristocracy. In tennis, and later in sailing, Australia often posed as democratic challenger to American privilege. When Alan Bond and John Bertrand mounted their 1983 challenge for the America’s Cup, many Americans cheered their challenge to the stuffed shirts of the New York Yacht Club, not because they liked Bond, but because they loathed the NYYC. The Australians were the ‘Down Underdog’, said Time. The symbols of the challenge, the boxing kangaroo flag and the unofficial anthem, Men at Work’s ‘I come from a Land Down Under’ (‘Where the women glow and the men plunder’), signalled that, in the heyday of the corporate buccaneers, the rhetoric of the sporting rivalry had also been raised to a new level of aggression. ‘Yank-bashing’ was Bond’s main tactic, observed Newsweek:
Australians still talk darkly about ‘Yankee insults’ that few Americans have ever heard of: the deaths while in America of the racehorse Phar Lap in 1932 and the boxer Les Darcy in 1917.13
Multimillionaire Alan Bond was an improbable heir to this tradition, but with the aid of a populist prime minister and a sympathetic press, he almost brought it off. When the victorious Australians were invited to the White House to meet President Ronald Reagan, they were congratulated in language that had become familiar to Australians since the 1950s. The Australians, the President said, were great competitors, the two nations shared a great friendship, and, by heck, the Yanks would soon be back to wallop them. But he didn’t say that the men of Australia II were ‘pleasant fellows’ or ‘nice guys’.
‘Let’s show the world!’ Alan Bond exclaimed as he ordered the skirt to be removed from Ben Lexcen’s famous winged keel. But, as in most sporting contests, only part of the world was really watching. Since the days of the 1950s Davis Cup challenge rounds the distance—both temporal and geographical— between the contest and the imaginary grandstand of worldwide spectators had shrunk. Nothing has transformed the audience for international sport, or its economics, as much as the television satellite. Now, in principle at least, everyone is a spectator. The number of Australians following the 1953 challenge round far outnumbered the ten thousand or so who could fit into Kooyong. Their participation was intense but remote, aural rather than visual. It was the Christmas–New Year break, and on beaches and in back yards across the continent you could hear the plop-plop of tennis balls punctuated by gusts of applause. In the USA it was deep midwinter, when other outdoor sports were largely in recess, so reports of the Davis Cup got bigger headlines than they would in spring or fall. Even now, when Australians compete on the other side of the world, they tend to play at inconvenient hours. You have to be an insomniac, a rabid fanatic or a person careless of future employment to follow the Ashes or Wimbledon in real time. It takes a big contest to get us out of bed in the small hours. When Bondy lifted Australia II’s skirts many of us were watching, in our pyjamas. Perhaps we were rabid—but thanks to a populist prime minister at least we didn’t get the sack.
It was television, too, that finally brought about the transformation of the game that had long symbolised Australia’s relationship with Britain. When Bob Menzies turned on the TV in the back of the Daimler he had no idea what he was starting. Kerry Packer’s ‘World Series’ cricket matches, with their baseball-style uniforms, peak-scheduling, green-and-gold chauvinism, off-field gambling and on-field sledging, represented a new stage in the commercialisation and Americanisation of Australian sport. By the 1980s the international grandstand had grown immeasurably bigger, and the spectators had a more immediate and continuous view of the game, but now it was the global television moguls, rather than the players or politicians, who controlled the price of admission and, increasingly, the action on the field.
Seldom does the Australian dream of competing before the world correspond with the reality. Only twice in my lifetime, in 1956 and 2000, has Australia truly stood in the world spotlight. When Australia hosts the Olympic Games the nation itself, and not just its sporting representatives, is on show. In 1956 Australians were awkward first-nighters on the world stage. They were desperately anxious to impress, and even more fearful of being disgraced. Whenever local critics found something amiss—delays in the construction program, for example, or Melbourne’s antiquated hotels and drinking laws—they conjured up the patriot’s deepest fear: ‘We will be the laughing stock of the world.’ The preparations for the Games were almost a disaster. The organisers vastly overestimated the number of international visitors. They bungled the selling of film and television rights, so that Australia’s sporting heroes did not appear on American screens. ‘Australia has become the “dark continent” to millions of sports-minded Americans,’ an American sports writer quipped.14
Australia sought to present itself as a friendly, informal, hospitable, sports-loving people. It hoped that visitors would also find Australians modern and progressive. Alas, the impressions of hard-boiled foreign journalists did not always reinforce the locals’ hopes. Too often friendliness was taken for naivety, informality for rudeness, love of sport for an ignorance of more sophisticated pleasures. ‘The Australians’, reported John Lardner of Newsweek, ‘are unique in their frankness, their curiosity, their stubborn insistence at the moment on the beauties of internationalism and the relish they have begun to take in the last few years in strange people and strange customs.’15 The Australians were ‘nice guys’ all right, but almost as innocent as Margaret Mead’s Samoans.
In 2000 as in 1956, when Australians sought to impress the world, it was mainly the Americans they had in mind. Ric Birch, the expatriate Australian who masterminded the 1996 and 2000 opening ceremonies, deployed a range of stock Australian images, especially those already familiar to American audiences through Australian art and film. American journalists dominated the international coverage of the 2000 Games and it was their reports that Australian papers mainly reprinted in their own columns. Aboriginal reconciliation, the dominant motif of the opening ceremony and the cause personified by Australia’s star athlete, Cathy Freeman, was also the main focus of American news coverage—as much because of its resonance with American historical dilemmas as its local salience. There’s nothing too surprising about this selectivity: notoriously most countries cover only as much of the Olympics as fits within their own well-developed self-images. The travel-loving Germans were shown a land of beaches and open spaces, a ‘dream destination’; the insular Japanese marvelled at Australian multiculturalism; the Chinese saw practically nothing but the triumphs of Chinese divers and table-tennis players.16
Reading the foreign press, especially the American, I am struck both by how much, and how little, had changed since 1956. Many local journalists traced a story of national emancipation. They contrasted racist, anglophone, puritanical, Cold War, lamb-and-veg 1956 Melbourne with multicultural, sexually liberated, stir-fried kangaroo Sydney 2000. Clive James, reporting for both the London and the Australian press, celebrated an Australia still reluctant to acknowledge its own maturity. ‘Never in the world was there such a degree of well-being plagued with such insecurity,’ he reflected as the Games got under way. But by the end of the fortnight Australia had somehow thrown off its performance anxiety and taken the applause of the international grandstand to heart. ‘The Sydney Olympics, by synthesising and highlighting what we already possessed, put us on our own map,’ James concluded.17
But, as always, the grandstand was not unanimous. The old image of a friendly, sports-loving, relaxed but childlike people was still alive and well in both the British and the American press. Los Angeles Times reporter Mike Penner was not the only American journalist stumped by what to make of a nation that presented itself to the world in a display of synchronised lawnmowers, somersaulting sheep and tap-dancers in Blundstone boots. He thought Australians were a ‘quirky’ people. ‘Singular’ was the New York Times’ carefully chosen epithet. While Australians were congratulating themselves on not taking themselves too seriously, some Americans were wondering if the quirky folk down-under were capable of taking themselves seriously at all.18
Bill Bryson, a veteran traveller to Australia, and author of a bestselling book with its own share of ‘quirky’ anecdotes, came to Australia’s defence. The Olympics represented a ‘golden opportunity for some of America’s most gifted and thoughtful commentators’ to improve Americans’ knowledge of Australia. ‘Unfortunately’, he quipped, ‘they’ve sent sports writers instead.’19 Yet, at their best, the foreign journalists did capture aspects of the nation that we nearly missed ourselves. In one of the most thoughtful reports, Mark Landler of the New York Times pondered the greeting ‘No worries’ that fell from the lips of almost every Australian he met:
It’s the inevitable rejoinder to any expression of anxiety, an all-purpose palliative for the stressed-out visitor. No phrase better captures the laid-back veneer of Australian life. One hears it so regularly in Sydney that it ends up being devoid of meaning—a Down Under version of ‘have a nice day.’ That’s just as well because the no-worries Australian is as threadbare a cliché as the guy who swills Foster’s, wrestles crocodiles and wears a leather hat with bobbing corks to swat away the flies. Australians worry all the time, and this high anxiety helps explain why these Olympic Games are shaping up as among the smoothest in memory. Far from relaxing, tens of thousands of Australians are sweating every detail of what they describe as the greatest peacetime logistical exercise in history.20
If this really was the land of ‘no worries’ and ‘she’ll be right’, it is doubtful if Australians would have put quite so much store by the image they presented to the rest of the world. As Mark Landler perceived, the laid-back Australian was merely a camouflage for an Australian people more technically proficient, ambitious, aggressive—and, yes, more authoritarian and anxious—than we liked to admit, even to ourselves.
Is Australia’s sensitivity to the opinions of others a source of weakness or strength? Some societies—the USA might be one—can afford to make the rest of the world adapt to them. Australia, on the other hand, may be more in danger of adapting itself too much to the rest of the world, at least to those parts of it, such as the USA, that strongly shape our own culture. Recognising our unconscious dependence on the approval of others may be the first step towards a healthy national self-respect. Occasionally braving their disapproval, or puzzlement, may be a small gesture of independence. To be considered ‘nice guys’ and ‘pleasant fellows’ is all very well. Being ‘singular’ and ‘quirky’—maybe that’s a real step forward.
This essay was first presented as a keynote address to the Australian Society for Sports History Conference in Adelaide in July 2001 and appeared in an earlier version in the conference proceedings edited by Bernard Whimpress. I am grateful to Gayle Jenes and Ian Britain for subsequent references and suggestions.
- Peter Gay, The Cultivation of Hatred: The Bourgeois Experience Victoria to Freud (New York, 1994), pp. 426–7.
- Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (rev. edn, London, 1991), pp. 5–7.
- Richard White, ‘The Outsider’s Gaze and the Representation of Australia’, in Don Grant and Graham Seal (eds), Australia in the World: Perceptions and Possibilities (Perth, 1994), pp. 23–4.
- Argus, 6, 11 September 1868; Review of Reviews, October 1894, p. 294, quoted in F. Mandle, ‘Cricket and Australian Nationalism in the Nineteenth Century’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 59 (December 1973), p. 227.
- ‘Our Notebook—The Proposed Pan-Britannic Festival and Athletic Contest’, Referee, 17 August 1892; Greater Britain, 14 July 1891: both quoted in Katharine Moore, ‘One Voice in the Wilderness: Richard Coombes and the Promotion of the Pan-Britannic Festival Concept in Australia 1891–1911’, Sporting Traditions, 5 (May 1989), pp. 189, 191.
- Quoted in Garth Henniker and Ian Jobling, ‘Richard Coombes and the Olympic Movement in Australia: Imperialism and Nationalism in Action’, Sporting Traditions, 6 (November 1989), p. 8. (Emphasis added.)
- Ric Sissons and Brian Stoddart, Cricket and Empire: The 1932–33 Bodyline Tour of Australia (Sydney, 1984); Sun News-Pictorial, 14, 16, 18 January 1933; The Times, 18 January 1933.
- Greg Ryan, ‘“Extravagance of Thought and Feeling”: New Zealand Reactions to the 1932–33 Bodyline Controversy’, Sporting Traditions, 13 (1997), pp. 53–4.
- Don Watson, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM (Sydney, 2002), p. 211.
- W. Martin, Robert Menzies, vol. 2 (Melbourne, 2000), p. 490.
- New York Times, 29 December 1951, 1 January 1954.
- Quotations from Menzies and Talbert in Kevin Fewster, ‘Advantage Australia: Davis Cup Tennis 1950–1959’, Sporting Traditions, 2 (November 1985), p. 62.
- Time, 3 October 1983; Newsweek, 18 July, 3 October 1983.
- Herald (Melbourne), 27 November 1956. See also Graeme Davison, ‘Welcoming the World: The 1956 Olympic Games and the Re-Presentation of Melbourne’, Australian Historical Studies, 109 (October 1997), pp. 64–76.
- Newsweek, 3 December 1956.
- Reviews of foreign press by Steve Pennell in West Australian, 20 September 2000; Paul Sheehan in Sydney Morning Herald, 27 September 2000; Aaron Patrick and others in Australian Financial Review, 30 September 2000.
- Clive James, Even As We Speak: New Essays 1993–2001 (London, 2001), pp. 342,
- Los Angeles Times, 20 September 2000.
- Age, 20 September 2000.
- New York Times, 20 September 2000.