Before visiting Australia, I assumed they were a fairly simple nation when it came to sport. My impression was of a nation infatuated with the two biggest residues of a colonial past: cricket and rugby. Other sports like Australian Rules and Football, I assumed where a secondary preference.
My ignorance was short lived however when I arrived in Melbourne and uncovered a nation utterly obsessed with almost every sport you could imagine. A nation slowly building some well-respected brands within world sport and with ever improving standards. In any Australian city we have visited, big sporting events seem to be the dominant cultural force, the lifeblood of the city. In comparison to major sporting events in the UK the most striking difference was how affordable the tickets were, with general admission tickets to AFL games in the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) costing as little as $25 (around £15). Couple this with the fact that many sporting tickets also include travel on public transport and it’s easy to see why the nation is so in love with its sport.
Aside from the rugby (mainly league), cricket and football (soccer), there was one sport which really held my attention and epitomised the state of sport in Australia; Aussie Rules Football. A sport which captures the essence and complexities of Australian culture more than any other sport could.
Australian Rules Football seems undeniably ridiculous to an outsider, watching the game on television with little understanding of the rules can leave you feeling utterly lost. However, it became apparent very quickly that in Melbourne, people cared for little else during the season so we had no choice but to educate ourselves quickly.
We both decided to choose local teams for ourselves in the hope that tribal affinity would manifest a real passion for the sport. Lauren had no patience and went straight for the current champions, Hawthorn. I deliberated a little longer, considering the choice as a lifelong committal.
Based on my support of a long suffering and ridiculed football team back home (Queens Park Rangers) I decided on the equally abashed Western Bulldogs. Other factors in my decision included their westerly location within Melbourne and the indisputably British symbol of the bulldog.
With affinities affirmed and cheap, unofficial club t shirts purchased we felt ready to get involved. The first game we attended was at the 60,000 capacity Etihad Stadium between the Western Bulldogs and the West Coast Eagles. In all honesty my first impressions of the game were massively disappointing. The stadium was not even at one third capacity and the atmosphere felt flat and distracted.
Australian sport tends to lean towards a more American form of spectatorship with cheesy club anthems and cheer squads. Despite this there was one vital factor that retained my interest. The irrefutable physicality and fitness of the players. Built more like a triathlete than a rugby or football player, these players run the length and breadth of a cricket pitch relentlessly for 80 minutes. They have the spring of a basketball player, the speed of a footballer and the clout of a rugby player. A true competitor of Herculean stature. Ignore the proliferation of mullets, this is Australia after all.
With a new-found respect for the physicality and fitness of the players my interest in the game flourished. I never fully committed due to the oversized stadiums and flat atmosphere but it was easy to grasp its popularity throughout the southern states of Australia. My interest was also spurred by the surprising success of my chosen outfit the Western Bulldogs, who after many years floundering at the bottom of the league were building themselves up to be play-off contenders. After a few more games at the MCG and regular viewing on Friday night television I felt some way initiated into the world of Aussie Rules.
There was no doubting the grandeur of the sport. But however intense the play or entertaining the spectacle there was always a circling back to my disappointment in the live spectatorship of the sport. This was confounded mid-way through the season by a controversial issue surrounding an aboriginal player Adam Goodes.
Goodes is an absolute legend of the game in his own right, a dual Brownlow Medallist (the AFL equivalent of the Ballon D’or) and two time AFL Premiership winner with the Sydney Swans. He is the most capped Indigenous player in the leagues history and uses his quite unique position of influence to speak publicly about the issues of indigenous people and racism in Australia.
This all came to a loggerhead however during a match against Carlton in the AFL’s annual indigenous round. In celebration of scoring, Goodes performed an indigenous war dance in which he mimed the throwing of a spear at the opposition crowd. This sparked a huge national debate on the matter of indigenous people in Australia which more often than not revealed the utter lack of recognition of wrongdoing on behalf of white Australians. His actions were labelled inflammatory and aggressive as news corporations seemed intent on presenting Goodes as a villain.
It seemed a huge shame. Here was a man who had successfully bridged the gap between Indigenous and white Australia. A man who was as much of a cultural and sporting icon to aboriginal children as to any other ethnic community within Australia. The AFL seems a perfect platform to bring about unity between white Australians and their aboriginal counterparts however this issue spiralled out of control and revealed how widespread and accepted the problem really is.
Within the arena of sport, and within the AFL in particular would be the perfect place to celebrate an amalgamation of these disparate cultures. I couldn’t understand why, rather than villainise a player like Goodes, the sport could not incorporate the aboriginal war dance as a part of the sport in the way New Zealand have embraced the Haka of the Maori tribal peoples. Aussie Rules Football is the only sport that is uniquely Australian. Why not celebrate all elements of Australian culture rather than whitewashing and sweeping the racial divide under the proverbial rug.
It was a real bitter reminder of the racial problems this country seems to be unwilling to face, even today. And the minimal response by the AFL was nothing short of shameful. As a sport, Australian Rules football has a lot to offer, but as an association and culture it has a lot of growing up to do. If this gap is bridged then there is no reason why AFL shouldn’t permeate to a level of global interest. A cultural symbol, born of Australia’s troubled colonial history but offering a beacon of hope for reconciliation and a harmonious future.