Thursday, May 17, 2007

Sports Cultures in Focus: Australia

By Kevin Beane

This is the first in an irregular, whenever-I-feel-like-it attempt to capture the sporting zeitgeist of a country, region, or city. It requires you to forgive my arrogance in trying to accurately sketch places I have never been, like this first one. My inspiration for this project is The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup, a book of essays about soccer, politics, culture, and life in each of the 32 countries of the 2006 World Cup, each by a different, talented writer.

I used to ponder and begrudge the Aussies' green and gold finery in international sporting events. Their flag's colors are blue, red, and white. It's sacrilege to adopt national colors that are nowhere to be found on your flag.

But I've mellowed on my stance a bit. The field of countries that have that combination of colors on their flag is awfully crowded (the U.S., the UK, France, Russia, and the Netherlands just right off the top of my head), so I can understand a desire to set yourself apart without rewriting history.

If the Australians did want to start wearing their flag's colors, however, no one could deny them that based on athletic merit. Just about 20 million people strong, they have a sporting track record that belies those numbers (to be sure, they consistently win the most medals-per-population in the Summer Olympics).

What's particularly impressive is the array of sports they succeed at. We know here in America that they can play basketball thanks to Andrew Bogut, Luc Longley, and others. We know they can play baseball thanks to Dave Nilsson, Graeme Lloyd, and others.

I remember, perhaps 10 years ago, attending a minor league game of my hometown Akron Aeros. It was just the second game of the season, still April, and by the sixth inning, flurries begin to swirl and the temperatures dipped into the thirties. Perusing my program, I noticed the Aeros' starting catcher was an Aussie (Mike Moyle was his name, if I recall correctly). I scanned his bio and noted that his previous minor league stops had all been in Southern states, and there was no mention of attending college in the U.S. or any other American connection. So a burning question, forever unanswered, ran across my mind: is this the coldest he has ever been in his life?

So yes, Australians do well in sports with Olympic and worldwide popularity. What makes that feat even more impressive, in addition to the relatively small resource pool, is that those sports aren't even the most popular in Australia. They succeed in world sports, and they succeed in their more insular Commonwealth sports: Rugby Union, Rugby League (which contain enough key rule differences to render them different sports, and players rarely cross over), and the most popular sport in Australia, and as unique to them as American Football is to us, Australian Rules Football.

These three sports, along with soccer (more on that later), give Australia self-sustaining professional leagues in four different hybrids of the soccer/football family, a claim no other country can make.

Why is Australia so successful in sports? The main reason seems to be they take the best of capitalism and the best of socialism to create the perfect sporting environment.

More specifically, they enjoy all the advantages, trappings, and cash flow that a robust capitalist system often delivers, but they also have a centralized, government-run sports factory of sorts, the kind you might associate with old Iron Curtain countries: the Australian Institute of Sport. It's essentially a national school for the brightest, most promising athletes in 26 different disciplines. Think Fame, or fill in the name of your local Performing Arts high school, but for sports.

I haven't even touched on the sport Australians are arguably the most successful at, and it's the sport where Greg Norman opened the floodgates.

In this week's events on the PGA, Nationwide, Asian, and European tours, at least 10 Aussies will tee it up in each. Six of the top 30 golfers in the Official World Golf Rankings are Australian, a number bested only by the U.S.

You may have noticed that, in rattling off the names of the biggest international golf tours, I did not mention an Australian Tour. Do they have one? Well, yes, they do, it's called the Australasian Tour, but in stark contrast to all other Australian sporting venues, it struggles greatly to make an impact.

The only events on the Australasian Tour that are not co-sponsored by one of the previously mentioned larger tours are two of their majors, the Australian Open and the Australian PGA Championship. Even including the co-sponsored events, there's just seven events in all, and they agreed to let their third major, the Australian Masters, be co-sponsored by the European Tour in 2007. Their richest event, the Heineken Classic, ceased to be last year after Heineken dropped out. Channel 7 Australia's head honcho has made some straightforward remarks about his distaste for broadcasting golf, and in the U.S., The Golf Channel has stopped showing same-day coverage of their non-cosanctioned majors. The event organizers have a devil of a time getting Australia's best and brightest to come home and play in their native majors at all. The best comparison is today's NBA stars' indifference to representing America in international competitions.

The Asian tour, by contrast, continues to add events and more prize money by the minute. It has truly left the Australasian Tour in the dust as the region's pre-eminent golf tour.

It's hard to know why this is, but it's doubly baffling considering how well-managed their other sports leagues are and how the Aussies distinguish themselves in golf even more so than in other international sports. Mismanagement, perhaps?

Speaking of international sports, I haven't had much to say about their soccer program. The socceroos (how I hate that moniker) was long regarded with sneering ignorance on my part. For most of its history, Australia has been part of FIFA's Oceania region, which is just them, an overmatched New Zealand, and several Pacific micro-nations overmatched by New Zealand.

Invariably, Australia would cruise to an Oceanic World Cup-qualifying title, play an also-ran from another federation in a tiebreaker match to gain entry into the actual World Cup, and lose.

This last round, it was Uruguay they had to play and beat in a home-and-home to gain entry into the World Cup. I laughed off the claims of my soccer-loving friends that they had a chance. They always lose this intercontinental playoff to the team from the stronger confederation and Australia itself has since moved into a stronger confederation: the Asian Football Confederation. Now it's left to New Zealand to kick around the Fijis and Vanuatus. Why would this time be any different? Against a South American country, no less? One they lost to in the last World Cup Intercontinental playoff, for good measure?

But win they did (and they went on to advance to the second round of the World Cup, too), and while I'm going to refrain from calling Australian fans, or any other fans, more passionate then anybody else (I firmly believe the hardcore followers of Manchester United are no more passionate then the people who follow East Tennessee State's basketball program around the country; the only differences are in the number of supporters and how they demonstrate their support), one anecdote passed along in The Thinking Fan's Guide really struck me.

As the Australians were winning the shootout in the decisive game in front of 82,000 strong in Sydney, the fans broke out in song. Far from being an obscure, drunkenly-crooned ballad like you might shrug off in Europe, the fans sang something that probably sounded familiar even to the Uruguayans, or at least those old enough to have clear memories of the mid-'80s.

Living in a land down under, where women glow and men plunder...

Wait, I can imagine thinking as a dejected Uruguayan leaving the field. These boozy songs are supposed to be meaningless to non-natives. Why does this song sound so familiar?

Can't you hear, can't you hear the thunder?

That's gotta be intimidating and one of the most effective crowd-participation gambits around. You travel to the most isolated continent on Earth, practically a different planet as far away as Australia is from everywhere, and while your body tells you you are far, far from home, your mind and the people around are haunting you with relics of familiarity. And they're beating you, too.

You better run, you better take cover.

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