Last Saturday night, with a level of hype and expectation akin to the lunar landing, a seriously large number of Australians stayed up late to watch the country’s most successful racehorse, Black Caviar, race at Royal Ascot in England. You read right – people lost sleep in order to watch a racehorse compete in a race thousands of kilometres away, in a country that everyone in Australia loves to hate. The reason why of course is that as a community, we are absolutely obsessed with sport. Any sport.
Babies born in Melbourne routinely have an Australian Rules football team before they have a name, and once that minor detail has been finalised, the next step is getting them straight on to the waiting list for membership of the Melbourne Cricket Club. The current waiting list for MCC membership, which entitles the holder to entry to all football and cricket games held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, is somewhere in the vicinity of seventeen years.
So what is it that makes Australians such sporting tragics? One school of thought is that as a young nation with comparatively few competing narratives, most of our national heroes have ended up coming from sport, and sporting success has come to be a key indicator of our success as a nation. We’ve got a small number of war heroes and a couple of cultural icons, but the vast majority of our identity comes from sport, and we measure our place in the world through it.
At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Australia slipped to number six on the medal tally, after finishing fourth in 2000 and 2004. We still won half the amount of medals that the USA won (not bad for a country with one fourteenth the population) but the media response in Australia was uncompromisingly hostile. If you were visiting Australia at this time and happened to pick up a newspaper, you could have been forgiven for thinking that we’d come out at the bottom of the medal table, or that our entire Olympic team had been outed as drug cheats.
But while we’re totally obsessed with sport, I like to think we’ve also got pretty decent manners too. Every Friday night for most of the year, up to 90,000 people cram into a stadium to watch an Aussie Rules game. Fans from both teams travel to the game together, they sit together at the ground, and at the end of the night they pile sardine-like into a packed train together to go home. There’s no team-based segregation, no fights and no need for masses of police. Why? Because it’s community at its finest – Australians don’t care what sport you love, as long as you love sport. And they don’t care which team you support, as long as you support someone. It’s obsessive, but it’s kind of nice too.