Margaret Thatcher is quoted, probably Apocryphally, as saying in 1990 when discussing with Kenneth Clarke the England team’s defeat against Germany in the semi-final of the Association Football (aka soccer) World Cup:
‘They might have beaten us at our national sport, but we managed to beat them at their national sport twice in the 20th century.’
She might not have actually said this, but English fans love to chant, when they are playing against Germany: ‘Two World Wars and one World Cup!’
Which does put the place of sport somewhat into the proper context, much as we prefer it overwhelmingly over the prospect of War.
Of course, I would be naive if I were not to mention the warlike win at all costs attitude which fascist, communist, and nationalistic regimes have placed on success in sport over the years, right back to Berlin in 1936 and right throughout the Cold War, continuing now with the obsession Communist China has with Olympic success.
Australia has, as part of its foundation mythology, a reliance on both the courage and nobility of our citizen soldiers in wartime (we are never the aggressor), and the excellence of our sports people in international competition.
At the moment, some aspects of the behaviour of our soldiers in in our most recent conflict are falling into serious question. But at the same time, the commitment of Australia to triumph in sport remains paramount.
I think this comes from the gold rush, and the wealth that filled Victoria, creating one of the first serious sporting cultures in the world, at a time where humanity was first rising above absolute poverty. Melbourne’s famous horse races are amongst the oldest in the world. Test cricket was born here. And the most ancient of the AFL clubs are older than English Premier League teams.
We have been interested in sport, and have been able to afford to invest in it, and in pursuing global success in sport, for far longer than just about anyone else.
Harken back to 1983 – where a shonky Perth businessman closed down a chain of department stores not too long before a yacht he was bank rolling, as part of his endeavours to rise above his Cockney low rent origins into what passes for genteel respectability amongst the sand gropers, happened to win a series of races against an American yacht.
We all remember Australia 2 defeating the Stars and Stripes to break the longest winning streak in sporting history. It was a very big national celebration – spontaneously declared as an unofficial public holiday by the newly elected prime minister. But who remembers the Waltons department stores which Alan Bond closed down at that time?
But the existentialist crisis in Australian international sports came a few years earlier, in 1976. This was the Olympics where Australia failed to win any gold medals. There was national dismay.
And whilst democracies do not see the same ideological need to win gold medals as totalitarian regimes do, our politicians do like to be seen as doing something to promote sporting victory, so that they can bask in the afterglow of the success of our athletes. And the success of national sporting teams promotes nationalistic fervour (NB – I consider myself to be a patriotic Australian, but not a nationalist, as I believe we should place limits on the nation-state).
Hence the federal government sprung into action, establishing the Australian Institute of Sport, and pumping increasing amounts of money over the ensuing years into ensuring that never again would we suffer the national disgrace of failing to win gold medals at the Olympics.
Winning gold medals is a serious monetary investment, something which I personally see as about as productive a pursuit as bitcoin mining. But our sporting bureaucrats have success targets and business plans, seeking to leave nothing to chance. The number of medals which our athletes are expected to win as a return for the taxpayer investment is subject to careful predictions. The amount of money poured into each sport and its competitors is in a precise formula involving a combination of probable success and of inclusiveness (a politically correct way of describing the long shot punts on obscure sports like speed skating where we might enjoy a fluke victory – after all, we are a nation of punters).
As some fictional Olympic official says in the Simpsons episode where the Olympics are almost held in Springfield (until Bart insults the entire IOC):
‘The Olympics are about handing out medals of beautiful gold, so-so silver, and shameful bronze.’
That does sum up pretty accurately the Australian public’s appetite for success at the Olympics.
Which brings us to Basketball, a sport which is fun to play socially, but extremely tedious to watch as a spectator. Liz Cambage, one of the stalwarts of the Australian Women’s Basketball Team, has come out and criticised the Olympic organisers for not being inclusive in the sorts of athletes who appear in the official photos promoting the Olympic team.
She has now threatened to boycott the Olympics.
Let’s look at the performance of the Australian Women’s Basketball Team at past Olympics. The Opals, as they are call, won silver in 2000, 2004, and 2008. They won bronze in 1996, and in 2012.
I will not bother looking at the record of the Australian Men’s Basketball Team, because, let’s face it, basketball is boring and men’s basketball is even more boring than women’s basketball.
But, what I am getting at is that Australia is interested in winners, not losers. We love the swim team most of all, as they rarely let us down and give us GOLD GOLD GOLD. We are fond of our rowers and equestrians and shooters and some track & field athletes and cyclists, because they often give us the endorphins we need as a nation from winning gold medals for us. And we reward them accordingly for this by funding them and giving them their faces on postage stamps and the Order of Australia Medal in the next Australia Day Honours list.
But what do our Basketballers do for us? Forever disappointing us.
Lately, not even shameful bronze.
And who really cares about Basketball anyway? It is mostly a big thing in the USA. And what are some of the other things that they love in the USA which we are not so keen on here:
. Dr Pepper
. supersized junk food
. unrestricted gun ownership
. fundamentalist Christianity (the de facto state religion)
. the death penalty
. imprisonment rates approaching a one in ten chance in a lifetime of ending up in gaol.
Americans are welcome to keep all those things, and they are welcome to keep their basketball as well.
As far as I am concerned, not only is Liz Cambage welcome to boycott the Olympics and continue to play her lucrative career out in the WNBA in the USA, but the Opals as a whole are welcome to stay away from the Olympics too.
Basketball is essentially irrelevant in Australia, and I think the organisers of both Netball Australia and the AFLW are probably today rubbing their hands with glee at Liz Cambage’s gestures of defiance against Olympic and Basketball officials alike.