Grand Final Day, 2014

I’m not writing this for you, dear reader. I’m writing this for me. I’m writing this because I want to remember. Even though I’m unlikely to forget.

Saturday, 27 September 2014. At home.

The day started at 6am. The 2.5-year-old was far too excited to sleep with the Grand Final due. Books were read, laughter exchanged, and the local shops were visited for a swing, a slide, a croissant, the Saturday Age and the Grand Final Footy Record.

Once home and through breakfast, we played kick-to-kick out back as his mother arose for the day. The sun was out, the birds were enjoying life, and never before had I approached a Hawks Grand Final with such a relative lack of concern. For a majority of the season, when people asked me how worried I was about the chances of the oft-injured Hawks, I replied, “What’s there to be worried about?” We were the reigning premiers and had won two in six years – about right, I thought, for this era of greatness. Anything else was a bonus, and besides, Saints, Demons and Bulldogs supporters have every right to swear at a Hawk worried about his squad’s injury worries while still safely ensconced in the top four.

Such a beautiful, carefree morning was punctuated by a discovery that lit up the kid’s eyes like no other. While grabbing my Hawks scarf from the cupboard, I found a small bear wearing a Richmond jersey – a gift from the little fella’s maternal grandfather in the days before the kid had actually chosen his team. It lay beside similar toys wearing Geelong and Essendon gear provided by other wannabe-influencers of the kid’s footy allegiance. His mother agreed that a Grand Final present might make the kid’s day. “Richmond Teddy” was crowned, and found a permanent place at the boy’s side.

During lunch, Mrs EPO – a Swans supporter – took off. Despite our mixed family usually sharing an amicable respect, we were always going to be better off watching the game separately. It was bad enough sitting with her while she hoped for a Port win during the Preliminary Final as she thought the Swans would have an easier time against them in the GF. So off she went to enjoy the game with her father – a Tiger – and mother – a Bomber.

Meanwhile, the kid and I were due to watch our first Grand Final together. Last year, his mother didn’t bring him to the Grand Final barbeque I was attending so that I could worry about the Hawks without needing to worry about an 18 month-old who wouldn’t have understood why I was ignoring any approach throughout the game. And in 2012, his mother and I were at the MCG while he was being babysat on an afternoon his Mum will cherish forever.

Distractions were at the ready, and he was worded up that his Dad had to watch all of this important game.

Unexpectedly, he dutifully, beautifully, brilliantly napped through the first half. I thought I was bound to have woken him at one stage, loudly swearing at the umpires and Adam Goodes at the same time, but the exhaustion from his early morning and energetic anticipation of the afternoon had hit hard.

And what a first half it was. The midfield was all Hawthorn – my three favourite Hawks this side of Dunstall in Mitchell, Lewis and Hodge were everywhere and hitting targets at will, while Parker and Hannebery were uncharacteristically m.i.a.. (Actually, Hannebery was seen once – being pummelled by Roughead in an insta-iconic tackle.) Malceski aside, no Swan defender was seeing much of it, while almost every touch of the Hawks was clean, considered and effective. At half time, the 42 point lead was only 2 points in arrears of the largest comeback ever in a Grand Final – all of the commentators regarded the Hawks as being practically home.

During the third, the two of us sat together on the couch, grazing on our platter of toddler-favourite snacks: chips, strawberries and mushrooms. His hunger, commentary, enjoyment of the game and laughter as he copied some of Dad’s exhortations towards the TV made it the fastest, funniest, most beautiful quarter of footy I had ever seen. We were home indeed.

Having finished grazing, the kid was ready to run during the fourth quarter – “Would you like to play with me, Dad?” “Mate,” I replied, lifting him temporarily onto the lap, “the Hawks are going to win today, so after the game, all the players are going to get medals and then Hodgey’s going to get the Cup.” “And they’ll have a big hug!” “That’s right, mate! So, when the game’s finished, I’ll call you so that you can come and watch them all get their medals and once they have the Cup, then I’ll come and play.” “OK, once they have the Cup…” And off he went, occasionally returning to watch a bit more, to read a magazine, to comment on the constant beeping of the mobile, or to ask whether Goodsey or Cyril would get the Cup too. For whatever reason, he was perfectly happy to be the most patient toddler in the world for a quarter of football.

And so, the final term was blissfully enjoyed with occasional added sound effects – as many texts as I’ve ever received in half-an-hour, and occasional shouts from the hallway: “I’m enjoying my game, Dad!” as the soccer ball thumped into the wall with a pair of toddler’s feet storming behind it.

In the incomparable Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby comments on the strange relationship between sports fans and entertaining play by describing the crowd’s reaction to a spectacular goal by Tottenham’s Paul Gascoigne:

“Neutrals loved the glorious theatre of that Gascoigne moment, of course, but there were very few neutrals in the stadium. There were Arsenal fans, who were as horrified as I was, and Tottenham fans, who were just as thrilled with the second goal, a two-yard Gary Lineker tap-in after a scramble – in fact, they went even more beserk then, because at 2-0 after ten minutes Arsenal were dead and buried. So where is the relationship between the fan and entertainment, when the fan has such a problematic relationship with some of the game’s greatest moments?”

The Hawks were so far ahead during the fourth quarter that I experienced something I’d never experienced before: genuine joy at excellent Hawthorn play during a Grand Final. I was watching a game while simultaneously understanding the nostalgia the moment was creating.

And then, it was over. Hodge rose his fists into the air, Langford pushed himself back up off the ground, the club song played, and the modern-day Hawks – who were such underdogs but hours earlier that one betting agency advertised them at $4 odds for the win – were suddenly a team for the ages.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve always found the coolest moment of the Grand Final to be the presentation of the premiership medals. All players are equal, all have their moment, and all dreamt of it as kids let alone the previous night. This year, the kid stood fascinated between my knees, while I cheered outwardly for all of the guys as they headed up to the dais.

There was Shiels and the streaky Smith, Stratton and three-timer Burgoyne, Gibson and Norm Smith-Lake, Hill and the ever-dogged Puopolo, McEvoy and the ever-trusty Hale, Durea and Will “I’m not just Chris’ boy” Langford, Spangher and best-kick-in-the-comp Suckling, and the two who never miss in Gunston and Breuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuust.

And there were the magical six – the men who have been part of the ’08, ’13 and ’14 Premiership teams and who always make we Hawk fans feel so safe and secure when the ball is in their hands. Down back, there’s the quiet achiever in Birchall with his rangy gallop and pinpoint left boot. There’s Hodge, the man’s man, all courage and inspiration. In the middle, there’s Lewis going in headfirst when he’s not the third man up, as smart and tough a head as any going round. There’s Mitchell, for whom time seems to slow down when he has the ball, and whose left is as good as his potent right. Up front, there’s Roughead, the country boy who leads like he was taught by the great full-forwards of the ‘80s. And there’s Cyril, worth the price of admission, the kid from up north who changed the way the game is played with his unsurpassed defensive pressure in the forward line.

“They’ve got the Cup, Dad!”

So they did. After a few seconds of the Hawks crowding around Hodge and Clarkson hoisting it aloft, we were off. He rode his bike ever-so-briefly, but really he wanted to play kick-to-kick with Dad while the evening’s sausages cooked on the barbie.

There we were, practically unable to look any more Australian. Dad wearing his Hawks scarf, kicking his son’s Tigers footy. Kid loving a day spent immersed in footy and outdoor play, now enveloped by the undivided attention of his Dad who was happier than ever. The smell of sausages slowly wafting over the suburban backyard. How many times have I kicked that ball during these past months? How many hours did my Dad and older brother spend with me in our old family backyard?

By the time Mrs EPO returned home briefly to offer her begrudging congratulations before heading out for dinner, a sausage had been scoffed and an ice cream was in the hand. All being eaten in a venue referred to as a “special treat” by the 2.5yr-old: in front of the television as various Hawks were being interviewed.

After his shower, the kid beamed: “And tomorrow, after I wake up, we can watch the footy again!” His mother and I had been preparing him for this moment for the previous couple of weeks. “No, mate. Remember, this was the Grand Final, the last game of the season.” “Yeah, it’s the last game for a really long time. But maybe…maybe we can walk to the oval and watch the kids play footy?” “No, mate. Their season is over too.” “Yeah. They won’t play again for a really long time!” And off he went, smiling, towards his bedtime stories.

The Hawks re-entered the MCG soon after, their footy jumpers over white dress shirts, Clarkson in his suit. Fans many years younger than I cheered from the hallowed turf and joined their heroes in the club song. I smiled not only at the unbridled joy that comes with victory, but also at the sheer ludicrousness of it. The silly childishness of revering men younger than yourself because they can play a sport so well, the sheer pointlessness of the game itself, and the beautiful innocence of childhood that memories of one’s love for one’s team can conjure.

Of course, in 2014 I am old enough to truly understand the gravity of this moment in my fanhood. I know that this is as good as it gets.

Hawthorn haven’t been this good since I was at primary school, and prior to last weekend, I’d always believed that those teams and heroes of my youth – Dunstall, Brereton, Dipper, Platten, Ayres, Langford and co – would remain unparalleled in my esteem. Such awesome admiration of a team was, therefore, something that in my mind has always been reserved for the 12-and-under set.

And yet, here it was: the moment when I realised that these men I have enjoyed watching so much as an adult are as good as those I loved and idolised as a kid. While my reverence may not be as wide-eyed and star-struck now as it was then, an innocent adoration for these random men wearing my team’s colours returned in a way that I hadn’t truly felt – or allowed myself to feel – for over 20 years.

Of course, innocent happiness was all around me during the day.

They say that becoming a parent brings a new perspective on life, and I’ve always seen such comments as referring to a new level of maturity that comes with the responsibility of having a child and “settling down”. But often, the new perspective thrust upon me is an admiration for and appreciation of childish innocence. For being a toddler entails having a life that so many adults attempt to re-experience through sport and other forms of entertainment. Watching, debating and reading about sport isn’t just a fascination with feats of physical excellence, but it’s also a socially accepted escape from the worries of the world. Grand Final day isn’t about work, money or health troubles, nor is it about politicians or terrorists. It’s about nothing more than a game and sharing your love of it with others. Just like toddlerhood.

Funny, how I’d never watched a Grand Final with fewer people, and yet I’d never felt such company.

When Mrs EPO arrived home from dinner late on Grand Final night, she found her husband lying on the couch with the Footy Record behind him next to an empty wine glass. He was absent-mindedly staring at the tv that was streaming Ben Howard’s gig from the iTunes Festival, the cat lying on his chest with a Hawks scarf spreading out from underneath various paws.

He was thinking of football and sport, of losses and premierships, of fathers and sons and families. Thinking how some of us are ridiculously lucky to have such memorable days of incredibly simple, innocent, beautiful joy.

Posted in AFL, Sport | Leave a comment

We fall for goals and marks, not cap space and free agents

Hawthorn’s appearance in this weekend’s AFL Grand Final may or may not be the most impressive feat of any team in the salary cap era, however AFL fans are unable to make this determination.

With the advent of free agency in the league in 2012, the AFL now finds itself stuck between two conflicting desires: (1) maintaining the long-held sense that club loyalty from players is more than an illusion in the AFL, and (2) wanting to maintain the interest of fans during the off-season as they discuss the potential movement of players between teams.

But in sports where free agency and a salary cap are combined in an attempt to maintain parity – such as the NBA, NFL and NHL in America – these two desires cannot both be fulfilled if fans are to feel truly informed about the league.

In the US, a sense of player loyalty has been a casualty of free agency as the culture of teams or “franchises” bidding for players is well entrenched. Leagues happily cash in on the year-round intrigue of where-such-and-such a player (LeBron James, anyone?) will play the following season. Meanwhile, teams promote money-saving trades or decisions to not re-sign expensive players as providing hope for fans: We’re worse and will lose more games now, but look at the money we’ll have that we can use to steal players from other teams next year! In order for fans to truly understand, appreciate and debate their team’s personnel decisions, fans are given access to salary information of each player in the league. And it’s this information – that the AFL has never released publically – that the league now must decide what to do with.

Let’s consider the example of 2014’s Grand Finalists.

At the end of 2013, Sydney signed Hawthorn’s Buddy Franklin to a massive 9 year contract. Franklin was a restricted free agent, meaning that Hawthorn had the opportunity to match Sydney’s contract offer and Franklin wouldn’t have had any choice but to remain with the Hawks. However, Hawthorn didn’t match the offer and…

How does one finish this sentence?

Is the correct ending “Hawthorn instead spent the money that they could have spent on Franklin on re-signing a number of their other players”? Or should it read “Hawthorn have since achieved an incredible feat, as they have reached the 2014 Grand Final despite being a whole Buddy Franklin contract under the salary cap, spending less money than any other Grand Finalist in the salary cap era”?

For we don’t know exactly what position Hawthorn were in. Had the Hawks re-signed Franklin, would they have had to lose other players who have since helped them reach the 2014 Grand Final? Or would they have been able to keep all of their players for 2014, but not have had any money left to re-sign some other players in 2015 and beyond?

And what of Sydney? Which of the Swans young stars – Nick Smith or Luke Parker, perhaps – are currently on small contracts, earning far less than their market value? Which of these players might the Swans struggle to afford to retain when they come off contract, partly because they are paying Franklin so much? And which teams – potentially even Hawthorn – will have money to throw at these players if and when the opportunity arises? Or, conversely, have the Swans actually timed Franklin’s contract beautifully as his salary will simply replace much of Adam Goodes’ once the legend retires, allowing them the “cap space” to re-sign their young stars?

Prior to free agency, “rebuilding” in the AFL meant either drafting or trading for young players and working to help them develop into stars. But in this new world, measuring the success of your club’s rebuilding strategy must also entail a sense of how wisely they are using their money, and how well placed they will be to spend some cash in the coming seasons.

In Australia, we don’t want to have these discussions, of course. We want to judge players purely on their level of play rather than their return on investment. We want to maintain our love of tradition and loyalty, as sons play for their father’s team and other players record their 300th game for a club.

AFL fans have learnt to allow small quirks to toy with these traditions without breaking them. This weekend, Josh Kennedy will be a key player for the Swans in what will be the second Grand Final in which he’ll have played against the team of his father and grandfather. In 2009, the Hawthorn father/son selection was struggling to break into the strong Hawks midfield, and was traded away to Sydney in exchange for draft picks.

Australian fans see this move as having made sense. A young, potentially good player couldn’t find a consistent game in the firsts, so sought a chance somewhere else. And in the end, Hawthorn lost out big-time as Sydney helped Kennedy to become a star.

But what Australian fans aren’t yet attuned to thinking about are the flow-on effects from such moves. Did Hawthorn really make the wrong decision, or would keeping a future star in Kennedy and paying him an appropriate salary have meant that they wouldn’t have had the money to recruit 2013 Norm Smith Medallist Brian Lake?

We don’t know the answers, and don’t want to ask the questions. We want a league which has its moral compass pointed squarely at tradition and loyalty, making an exception for occasional player movement that we can justify without thinking about club finances. We want our kids to grow up loving a team and choosing their favourite players without any sense of those players being commodities to be most effectively bought and sold in a league where prudent financial investment in players is the key to a Premiership.

But as free agency continues, such a traditionally Australian outcome becomes less and less likely.

Posted in AFL, Sport | 1 Comment

The most horrifying statistic in sports

The most stunning statistic in sports is also the most horrifying.

In 2009, David Card of the University of California, Berkeley and Gordon Dahl of the University of California, San Diego published a paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics entitled Family Violence and Football: The effect of unexpected emotional cues on violent behaviour. Their research showed that when a home team in the NFL is expected to win by more than 3 points but loses a game, the number of calls to the police in the town of the home team reporting men assaulting their wives or partners rises by 8 per cent.

Many of the calls suggest that most of the domestic violence occurs either during the last hour of the game or in the two hours immediately after it has finished.

The number of assaults rises even more if the home team loses to a traditional rival, or has a particularly frustrating performance with many sacks, turnovers or penalties.

For those of us who have no experience of it, domestic violence is one of life’s most incomprehensible horrors. And the idea that football matches can be foreboding for some women, an ominous precursor to violence at the hands of a loved one, is well beyond respectable description.

Every time we pull for an underdog, every time we revel in the errors of a home favourite, there are women utterly desperate for the opposite outcome.

Of course, this isn’t the only statistic about domestic violence that causes one to reel in disbelieving horror. In London, 10 calls an hour are made reporting male-on-female domestic violence, and it’s been said that 1 in 4 women worldwide will experience some level of violence in the home. How incredibly few Prince Charmings there are in the world.

When such violence is predicated on a man’s disappointment with his football team, the violence appears so far beyond the realm of comprehension. So obvious in its selfishness and pettiness. So brutally pointless.

This statistic was once mentioned in passing in Sports Illustrated during a feature article on an entirely different topic. There wasn’t – and hasn’t since been – an article related to the horror that sports can bring to family life, or to the literal dangers of fanhood.

In related news, last week the NFL suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice indefinitely for punching his wife out cold in an elevator, an event which was caught on CCTV cameras and released by gossip website TMZ. Before the video was released, a shorter version that “only” showed Rice dragging his unconscious wife out of the elevator provoked the NFL to suspend Rice for 2 games.

In response to widespread anger at the initial lenient penalty, the league has announced new rules, wherein a player who is the perpetrator of violence against a woman will be suspended for 6 matches for a first offence, and banned for life for a second. All of which makes more sense than the Ravens’ now infamous deleted tweet commenting on Rice’s wife Janay, saying “Janay Rice deeply regrets the role she played the night of the incident.”

In The Guardian, responding to people’s criticisms of Janay Rice’s choice to stay with and support her husband, Jessica Valenti argued: “I want Ray Rice to be punished for what he did, but what I want more is for Janay Rice to be heard – even if you don’t agree with what she’s saying or that she’s choosing to stay. No one knows her life better than she does, and if this outpouring of [domestic violence] stories should teach us anything it’s that the best thing we can do for survivors is listen to them. They will tell us what they need.”

In a world in which so many women cannot protect themselves from harm in their own home, our societies need to do everything possible to help ensure their support and their safety. Simply listening to what support they say need sure seems like a place to start.

Next time anyone tells you that sports don’t matter, agree with them wholeheartedly. Argue that the results of games are beautifully pointless and that most of us are but lucky to be permitted such potentially joyous diversions in our everyday lives. And then, remind them that not everyone is so lucky. Especially some women in the football towns of America.

May every home team who is expected to win be successful this weekend.

 

In Australia, 1800 RESPECT is a free, confidential national family violence and sexual assault counselling service. Those needing support can also look at other services on the Department of Human Services website.

Posted in NFL, Sport | Leave a comment

30 for 30 Australia

In 2009, Bill Simmons of ESPN began producing the station’s 30 for 30 series. 30 filmmakers were asked to create a documentary about a sporting moment, personality or event of their choice that had occurred in the previous 30 years.

The series was incredibly successful – some of its films appeared at the Sundance, Toronto and SXSW film festivals, others received widespread critical acclaim, and all of them were worthy of discussion throughout the sports media world. Indeed, 30 for 30 was so successful that ESPN are currently half way through a second series.

Unsurprisingly for ESPN, even though it refers to itself as ‘The Worldwide Leader in Sports’, most of its documentaries are focused on events that have occurred in the US.

As Australian athletes and events aren’t represented at all, I thought it only reasonable to put together a list of 30 suggested documentaries from the same time period related to Australian sport. Anyone wanna call Mr Packer and see if he’ll get-a-funding?

1) As an homage to Kings Ransom, the first in ESPN’s series that focused on the trade of Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton to Los Angeles, the first film in the Australian series will focus on the 2010 move of Gary Ablett from Geelong to the Gold Coast and the effect it had on Ablett, the fans in Geelong and the popularity of footy in southern Queensland.

2) The difficult, controversial choice presented to athletes prior to the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which the Australian Government encouraged athletes to boycott. The Australian Olympic Committee voted 6-5 in favour of sending a team and Australia competed under the Olympic flag with 120 competitors attending.

3) The NBA career of Luc Longley, the first Australian to play in the league and also the first to win a Championship. Longley was the starting centre on the Chicago Bulls for the second of their three-peats, including the best and second best seasons ever recorded by an NBA team: 72-10 in 1995-96, and 69-13 in 1996-97.

4) The 1998 Sydney-Hobart yacht race, in which six lives were lost.

5) Prior to the 2004 Athens Olympics, four legends of Australian sport had won 3 Olympic gold medals at a single games: Betty Cuthbert and Murray Rose in Melbourne, Shane Gould in Munich and Ian Thorpe in Sydney. In Athens, two much less renowned female swimmers achieved the same feat: Petria Thomas, who battled depression for much of her career, and Jodie Henry who competed in Athens but was injured before the Beijing Olympics, so never swam in Olympic competition again.

6) The two days in 1995 when rugby league players were encouraged to sign a contract with News Corp’s breakaway Super League competition. The players were not permitted to take contracts away with them or consult with managers or families, but their often huge sign-on fees were handed to them immediately.

7) Darrell Hair calls Muttiah Muralitharan for throwing at the 1995 Boxing Day Test.

8) The boom in the Fantasy AFL industry that has become so successful that the Herald Sun based much of their move to having a paywall on their website on the economics of forcing fantasy footballers to pay for access to their fantasy leagues.

9) The life of Arthur Tunstall, a member of the Sport Australia Hall of Fame for his sports administration, particularly his contribution to boxing and the Australian Commonwealth Games team. He is perhaps best known for controversy, though, including when he threatened to send Cathy Freeman home from the 1994 Games for carrying both the Australian and Aboriginal flags on her victory lap.

10) The life and death of cricket commentator Peter Roebuck, one of the sport’s most revered writers and radio analysts. Roebuck was a philanthropist who helped students from cricket-playing developing countries to undertake tertiary education. He was followed by controversy, though, being given a suspended jail sentence in 2001 for using corporal punishment on cricketers in his care, and in 2011 he committed suicide after being asked by police to answer questions about allegations of sexual assault

11) Australia’s response to insta-celebrity Kay Cottee who was the first woman to sail single-handedly, non-stop around the world. After her journey, during which she didn’t have physical contact with anyone for 189 days, she was suddenly bombarded with interviews, press conferences, civic receptions, meetings with heads of state and the Australian of the Year Award.

12) In 1995, Ian Roberts became the first high-profile Australian sportsperson and first rugby league player in the world to come out as openly gay during his career.

13) The Fine Cotton scam that saw six people banned from horse-racing for life and Bill and Robbie Waterhouse banned for 14 years. Fine Cotton was a fairly ordinary horse, and its owners attempted to win big by replacing him with a better horse who was far more likely to win.

14) In the 1998 US Open final, two Australians played against each other. Pat Rafter won his second, and what would be his final, Grand Slam on his way to becoming one of Australia’s most beloved athletes who has the centre court at Brisbane’s tennis centre named after him. Mark Philippoussis lost his first of what would be two Slam finals, on his way to becoming an athlete that many Australians point to when looking for someone who didn’t live up to his potential.

15) The ‘yips’ experienced by two successful Australian sportspeople. After winning the 1991 British Open, Ian Baker-Finch’s golf game utterly failed him and never returned while he was a professional. In 1995-96, he missed the cut or pulled out of all 29 events he entered. In his final professional round, he shot an extraordinarily poor 92 in the first round of the 1997 British Open and decided he couldn’t bear to return the next day. Some years later, World Champion and Olympic Gold medal winning pole vaulter Steve Hooker completely lost the ability to compete, saying “the confidence I require to stand at the end of the runway and then charge down, land my pole and soar almost 6m into the air has left me for the time being.”

16) In 2014, the Melbourne Tigers basketball team changed their name to Melbourne United. The hope was that a name change would encourage Victorian basketball fans who had previously supported rival Melbourne NBL teams would now support Melbourne United as they were no longer the Tigers.

17) In 2010, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission forced the makers of the Power Balance wrist band to – amongst other things – cease claiming that their product would improve the user’s balance, strength and flexibility by working “with the body’s natural energy field.” They were also forced to offer full refunds, plus postage. The bands were worn by many famous athletes across the world, including Kobe Bryant, Drew Brees, Victoria Azarenka and the St.Kilda football team.

18) At the Sydney Paralympics, a member of Spain’s intellectual disability basketball gold medal team was also an undercover journalist who revealed that most of his teammates were not disabled.

19) The 1985-86 and 1986-87 Australian rebel cricket tours of South Africa.

20) The rivalry of the Australian and New Zealand netball teams.

21) The life of Jobie Dajka, track cyclist and 2002 World Champion in the keirin. He suffered from depression, alcohol-related stress and was banned for three years following an assault on the Australian track coach. Dajka was found dead in his home in 2009, having never attended an Olympics.

22) In a letter to all National Soccer League clubs in 1996, Soccer Australia explained that to participate in the following season, “All clubs shall be obliged to remove all symbols of European nationalism from club logos, playing strips, club flags, stadium names and letterheads.” Arguments for and against the move were immediate, including from politicians and most Australian soccer players and commentators.

23) Sally Robbins lays down in the boat during the 2004 Athens Olympics. She quickly gains infamy and is destroyed by the media. Eventually, the fact that she had done this more than once prior to the Games is recounted by her teammates in court as witnesses in a defamation case brought against Alan Jones by Australian Olympic Committee President John Coates.

24) The residents of Benalla, Victoria and Bunbury, Western Australia reminisce over the visit of the great West Indies cricket team of 1984 visiting their towns to play against the local state country team.

25) The findings of the federal senate select committee inquiry into animal welfare in 1991 that concluded that jumps racing should be phased out on the grounds of cruelty. New South Wales responded by banning jumps racing in 1997, while Victoria still hold jumps races including some that are worth over $250,000.

26) The St Marys Football Club in the Northern Territory Football League, arguably the most successful local AFL team in the country. The Saints won 6 Premierships in each of the 80s, 90s and 00s, producing many indigenous AFL players including Maurice and Cyril Rioli and Michael Long.

27) In 2006, Peter Brock skidded during the Targa West rally, hit a tree and died instantly.

28) The career of Jelena Dokic, semi-finalist at Wimbledon and the Sydney Olympics, along with the rocky relationships between her, her family, Tennis Australia and the wider Australian sporting public.

29) The Melbourne Storm salary cap scandal that saw the team stripped of the 2007 and 2009 NRL Premierships.

30) Australia’s reaction to the cult hero of Olympic mascots, Fatso the Fat-Arsed Wombat.

Posted in Sport | 5 Comments

Interpretations of 5 hours

What does it matter, what we say about people?

This past weekend, my parents took me to two World League volleyball matches between Australia and Finland. The matches were both fascinatingly close 5-setters that took a combined 5 hours to decide. It extended my relationship with the Australian team, who I’ve come to appreciate through their performances at the London Olympics and their World Championship qualification series last year.

There’s libero Luke Perry – who is nothing like Luke Perry – who looks like he should be drinking heavily on a European Kontiki tour during his gap year rather than playing on a national sporting team. Appearing like the little-brother-who-thinks-he’s-the-coolest-guy-in-the-world, his teammates often look down and chuckle as he swears at himself for not cleanly returning an unreturnable spike that was travelling at a million miles an hour somewhere vaguely within his vicinity.

There’s the hilariously capricious setter Harrison Peacock who aggressively kicks his water bottle in frustration with his own performance upon being subbed off, angrily standing by himself a little separate from the other reserves. But upon his return a set later, he can be seen bouncing around the court to slap hands with each of his teammates as if to say “Don’t worry fellas, I’m here. You can count on me to guide you through all of this coolly and calmly.”

There’s Thomas Edgar, the mountain of a hitter. A man who looks like a 6-foot-11 version of Roger Ramjet, resplendent with jutting-out jaw and chest, who would attract attention if he were to walk down a street. Bystanders would hope like hell that he’s athletic, because they wouldn’t be able to work out what a guy with his kind of build would do if he weren’t. On court, Edgar throws the ball so high before his jump-serve, one wonders if arrogance and showiness has overtaken any sense of an understanding of the term ‘margin-of-error’.

There’s Adam White, the rangy hitter with the shaved head, a southern cross tattooed on a shoulder and the Olympic rings on the inside of a forearm. A guy who presents as the personification of the age-old don’t-want-them-at-your-Australia-Day-party stereotype.

And there’s Nathan Roberts, the smiley reserve-come-starter who seems like everyone’s popular, chilled, all-inclusive big brother. Exuding warmth and a relaxed confidence, his play doesn’t appear at all spectacular when compared to many of his peers, but he appears entirely confident with his precise understanding of the percentages and angles of the game.

It’s silly, of course, the way we develop judgements and reach conclusions about these people.

Would we find them charming and engaging if given the opportunity? Or are they immoral or dishonest, adulterous or violent? Are they suffering in ways we cannot comprehend – death, illness, estrangement? Or are they as lucky, happy, and jovial as can be? Are they so intelligent we’d struggle to keep up with them or are they completely illiterate?

And how much does any of this matter to those of us who are only presented with a 5 hour window into their public lives?

Despite endless evidence to the contrary, we pretend that sportspeople are precise mirrors of our interpretations of their on-court and media-driven personas. We watch, discuss, argue about and analyse the unanalysable. We choose heroes and villains by applying some beautifully changeable algorithm of persona, appearance and the team who they represent.

Watching such a relatively unknown team as the Volleyroos reminds one of this aspect of sportspeople’s place as reality television-esque characters within our society.

Take our various interpretations of the actions, movements and words of a teenage Ian Thorpe as an example. Those who saw him as a well-mannered, charming and carefree young man from a loving family now argue that swimming and fame have caused his current turmoil – something they say appears unavoidable considering the plights of Hackett, Huegill and others. Those who saw him as a tightly-wound, highly-strung, sexually-confused adolescent stuffed into an other-wordly-body say they always saw it coming.

But we still enjoy it all, of course. We love it, in fact – it’s a major part of the fun. And for each of us, our thoughts on an athlete’s character are, in our minds, as perfect an assessment of them as we can make. We believe whatever we believe about them all, however flawed our thoughts may be.

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Bizarro World

So, let me get this straight.

The year is 2014, but everything seems completely upside-down.

Apparently, the reigning Wimbledon gentleman’s singles champion is British.

And the reigning Wimbledon ladies’ singles champion is retired.

And only one of the top 60 male tennis players in the world is American. And not one active US male tennis player has won a Grand Slam tournament.

And the highest ranked Swedish player is a guy called Markus Eriksson who’s ranked 362nd.

What the?

It’s not just tennis, either.

The four most recent winners of the Tour de France are from Great Britain, Great Britain, Australia and Luxembourg.

Meanwhile, according to the official records, no cyclist won the Tour de France between 1999 and 2005. Yep, apparently we spent many hours over 7 years wondering who was going to win events that ultimately wouldn’t have a winner.

But let’s move on.

Countries who are seeded in this month’s World Cup in Brazil include Switzerland and Belgium. Countries who are not seeded include Italy, England and the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, FIFA have awarded the World Cup for 2022 to a country where the average temperature in June-July exceeds 50C. The average minimum temperature doesn’t drop below 30C. It is also a country whose soccer team has never qualified for the World Cup previously.

You’d think that things in Australia wouldn’t be so bizarre. But you’d be wrong.

The trainer of the reigning Melbourne Cup winner is female.

Fremantle played in the most recent AFL Grand Final.

Kevin Sheedy finished his coaching career with a 6.82% winning percentage at his club.

One state has won 8 consecutive State of Origin series.

Not one long-course swimming world record is held by an Australian. And not one active Australian swimmer has won an Olympic gold medal.

The world’s number 1 ranked golfer and last year’s US Masters champion is Australian.

Two Aussies are playing in the NBA Finals.

Yep, the country is ordinary where it is usually good and good where it is usually ordinary.

And we can’t even expect some sense of normality to be restored by some of the great rocks of the sporting world. For even many of the most reliable athletes in history are not able to help our cause.

In 3 of the last 4 Grand Slam tournaments, Roger Federer hasn’t reached the quarter-finals.

Meanwhile, Tiger Woods hasn’t won any of the last 18 major tournaments he’s entered.

Seriously, everywhere you turn it keeps gets stranger.

A third of America’s gold medals at this year’s Winter Olympics were in an event called ‘slopestyle’.

The reigning 4x400m Olympic gold medallists aren’t even American. They’re from the Bahamas.

I mean, even test cricket, that most traditional, slowly-evolving of sports, is peculiar to the eye.

South Africa’s most recent test match scorecard did not include the name J.H.Kallis.

India’s most recent test match scorecard did not include the name S.R.Tendulkar.

And just when one thinks they’ve found a familiar corner of the sporting world, when one thinks that surely the strangeness can’t reach them there, one reads this week’s news.

Irene Van Dyk’s retired.

Sheesh.

 

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Playing your part

At the start of April, I travelled to Doha as part of an investigation into the conditions of migrant workers labouring on the construction sites of Qatar. What I saw was a disgrace. The workers I met told me of abuse, exploitation and deception.

One Kenyan father I met had been unable to see his child for five years because his employer had seized his passport and left the country, leaving him stranded and unable to work or go home. Others told of no payment or underpayment and said the conditions they lived in were inhuman. Sometimes as many as eight men shared a room no bigger than a child’s bedroom.

Many of those I met told me about a total lack of health and safety protection. The number of deaths by heart failure is so extreme that the firm appointed to assess the allegations which were unearthed by the Guardian, Amnesty International and others, recommended a full inquiry.

The Qataris have since announced very limited reform, including some changes to kafala, the sponsorship system for migrant labourers. But let’s be clear, this is a very small step in the right direction; there is industrial-scale abuse of workers in Qatar and nothing announced so far will bring that to an end. These proud workers shouldn’t have to die while building a World Cup.

-       Jim Murphy, The Guardian

What are you supposed to do? How are you supposed to feel? Surely you’re not to blame, right?

You’ve been looking forward to the World Cup for 4 years. It’s a month during which you can revel in sport, fascinated by all of the cultures coming together over one of the world’s most widespread, simplest, and cheapest games to play.

But men are dying in Qatar. Dying miles away from their families, in one of the world’s richest countries, having attempted to flee from poverty. Dying while building stadiums that will be used for the 2022 Cup.

You don’t know how many have died. According to Slate, Qatari officials were saying as recently as April that no-one had died while doing work for the World Cup. However, the International Trade Union Confederation has said that 1,200 migrants have died in the four years since Qatar was awarded the Cup, with the Nepalese Embassy in Qatar saying that 400 of them have been from their country.

But what are you supposed to do? How are you supposed to feel?

Surely, you’re not responsible. You’re just a random who watches the games, talks about them with workmates, attends World Cup parties down the pub and at your mates’ houses. Someone whose complete knowledge of Costa Rica and Honduras comes from their occasional qualification for the Finals. You’re just an armchair critic of the sport, the teams and through them the national characters of as diverse a range of nations as you’re likely to engage with for a long time. You’re just someone who loves the games, the narratives, the history and the spectacle. You’re just someone playing your miniscule, irrelevant part in one of the world’s biggest events.

So you’re not even close to being responsible, right?

Isn’t it the fault of FIFA for awarding the World Cup to Qatar in the first place? Isn’t it the fault of Qatar’s government, or any other people with power in the country who don’t speak out about the indescribable conditions migrant workers are forced to endure?

Or is there just the slightest bit of guilt that belongs to you? For isn’t this tournament’s success all thanks to the casual fans? The literal millions of people soaking in the games, the spectacle, and all of the advertising surrounding them? Aren’t they, and by implication you, the ones bringing FIFA the billions of dollars that the tournament earns through tickets, advertising, sponsorships and broadcasting rights? Aren’t they the reason Qatari officials allegedly bribed their way to the hosting rights, as the officials so desperately wanted casual fans like you to watch games, participate in conversations and hold parties at which everyone would be talking about, promoting and sharing in the biggest event in Qatar’s history?

Don’t FIFA and Qatar know that you’ll watch the games and soak in the advertising regardless of the issues surrounding the World Cup? Doesn’t this make you just a little culpable?

You don’t know.

And either way, what are you supposed to do? How are you supposed to feel?

Are you supposed to stop watching the games? What a pathetically pointless protest. Cutting off your nose to spite your face – missing out on sharing in sporting history with your friends and family in order to suggest that a tiny country on the other side of the world should be changing its migrant worker laws. It’d be a protest that no-one would hear – you don’t even have a black-ratings-box on your TV to register the fact that you wouldn’t be watching.

No, you know what will happen.

When the World Cup starts in Brazil later this month, you will watch the games the way you always do. You will be sucked in to the joy-de-vivre of the occasion and feel as cultured as ever, learning about countries far away from yours. You will use the event as an excuse to catch-up with family and friends, reminiscing about old times while sharing in the love of their company during the present.  You will feel as righteous as you can, as you know what’s going on in Qatar – you will voice your disgust and despair at what has been reported – but you will be safe in the knowledge that there’s nothing you can do from your position half-way across the world. You’d change the world, if only you weren’t so magnificently insignificant.

And besides, Qatar isn’t holding the World Cup until 2022 and some believe FIFA might even take the tournament away from the country between now and then.

So, for now, you will relax and enjoy Brazil 2014 without feeling any reservations at all. You’ll remind yourself that one of the benefits of this World Cup is that it’s made you aware of all of Brazil’s various social issues. And such knowledge, even if you can’t do anything about it and will probably never think about it again after the tournament, is a good thing, right?

You’re educated. You know what’s happening.

And you’re going to love the World Cup regardless.

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