It has been said that Australians are sport crazy and gambling mad and it’s a good bet that their money is right on the nose!
Why is it that some countries get a reputation for national obsessions? Australia’s reputation for playing and watching sport goes back a long way and has a lot to do with our peculiar colonial birth. Unlike Europe, and Britain in particular, we had to create our own mythology and we did it in our own unique way. Since we had no epic white history: no dragon-slaying knights, no great battles, no fairyland hierarchy, no monarchy, no swashbuckling pirates, bold seafaring explorers or, dare I say it, no great minds, we had no choice other than to create our own Antipodean super-heroes. We looked in unusual places making heroes out of bushrangers like the famed ‘wild colonial boy’, mythical shearers like ‘Crooked Mick of the Speewah’ and just about anyone who excelled in sport be they man, woman or animal.
Our first sporting champions were oarsmen, closely followed by cricketers and boxers. The truth is we were good at all three and in winning we saw ourselves as both independent and part of the world stage. We took a certain pride in being ‘colonials’ and especially when we defeated the ‘stirlings’ of Mother England. One suspects that some things never change!
Bill Beach was our first international sporting star and was affectionately referred to as ‘Our Bill’. When the oarsman returned to Sydney with the world cup more than half the population of the colony turned up along the banks of the Nepean River to see him make his victory lap. Like many early sportsmen his deeds were celebrated in hoopla and song
Australia has had a long love affair with cricket and the names of Spopoff, Fingleton, Trumper and, of course, ‘our Don Bradman’ are etched into our folklore.
I am reminded of the old squatter who staged an annual cricket match up in the backblocks. His team of his shearers, drovers, rouseabouts and layabouts was scheduled to play the townies and this was one match he definitely wanted to win. The old bloke was going away for a couple of weeks and before he left he gave strict instructions to his ‘captain’, who was also his best boundary rider, “to buy the team brand new uniforms and gear”. On the day of the match the old bloke was flabberghasted to see the team roll up in their ordinary working clothes. “What the hell’s going on here?” he blurted, “we’ve got no bloody chance of winning now.” The ‘captain’ looked at the boss and whispered “we’ll win, don’t you worry about that”. “But what about the money I gave you for the new uniforms and gear?” continued the irate squatter. “We gave it to the umpire” responded the boundary rider with a sly smile.
One can imagine that the rough and tumble Australian heritage would result in strong-armed men and that boxing would be a popular sport if only as a way of letting off steam. Early Australians even spread the word about ‘boxing kangaroos’ although no one actually admitted to seeing the Gidgee fight of 1863 the Big Red supposedly won on a technicality. The first fights were bare-fisted and bloody and the ‘battle’ between Sandy Ross and Evans in 1871 has gone down in our history as a notorious fight. It took place on the flats of the George’s River in Sydney’s south. A boxer surrounded by folklore is Les Darcy who achieved international bantamweight status and met an early and untimely death in America in 1917. His demise was viewed as a national disaster and stories circulated about ‘Our Les’ ‘dying of a broken heart’ and even being poisoned by the jealous Americans. In truth he died from a complication of pneumonia however folklore has little regard for facts. Oddly enough it was also believed that Phar Lap, a mighty race horse if ever there was one, also died of a broken heart.
In creating national heroes it appears racehorses were right up there. Phar Lap has been joined by the Goondiwindi Grey, Mussellman, Silvermine and Octagonal in being described as having supernatural powers. Although some were celebrated in song it was those ‘galloping rhymes’ where the super horses shone. Banjo Paterson’s ‘Man From Snowy River’ certainly sent the flintstones flying.
As most Australians know the racetrack has created a massive folklore and even its own slanguage with track-goers being overheard saying things like ‘that horse ran so wide it knocked a pie out of the mouth of a man in the member’s stand’ or ‘I’m so hungry I could eat a horse and chase the jockey’.
Australian sport is also usually tied to gambling and it’s been said that Aussies will even bet on two flies on a pub wall to see which one flies off first. They describe big gamblers as ‘high rollers’ who would ‘bet on anything that moved’.
If there was one dinkum Australian game it would have to be ‘two-up’. Whilst its origins are unclear one suspects it started in the trenches of the first world war. A simple betting game ‘two-up’ involves flicking two pennies to a matching heads or tails and has been described as ‘the fairest game in the world’. The exception to this rule would be when the spruiker slips in a two-headed penny! ‘Two-up’ is illegal except on Anzac Day when ‘schools’ miraculously appear across the country without the need to hire a ‘cocky’ to look out for the police.
(An old parody of ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles‘ runs):
| I’m forever playing two-up,
tossing pennies in the air,
They fly so high, nearly touch the sky,
When they turn heads I nearly cry,
Coppers always hiding, hiding everywhere,
I’m forever playing two-up, tossing pennies in the air.
Tennis also provided a national platform for our sport’s fanatics and we held the Davis Cup for so many years we considered ourselves unbeatable. Pat Rafter and Pat Cash have recently restored our faith although many Australians believe all those tennis cups rightfully belong to us all of the time.
We’re still creating myths around our champions and to hear a mob of Australians talking about Ian ‘torpedo’ Thorpe would make you think he was part seal, part man. Sydney Swans captain, Kelly, has been described as a God and runner, Cathy Freeman, makes us all feel proud about our indigenous atheletes. Then there’s the ‘iron men’ who tell us what we should eat for breakfast. There’s little doubt that sport is the Australian religion and, like most religions, we believe what we are fed be it tasty or unpalatable.