Two factors make Australia stand out among nations, writes Matthew Engel. One is the open, forthright, optimistic nature of its society and people: the “let’s have a beer, mate, and call a spade a bloody shovel, shall we?” mentality, which Australians like to believe is very different from the po-faced prevarication of the British.
The second is sport, at which the Aussies have always excelled, and which more than anything has defined Australia to itself and to the world. These two factors combined brilliantly to make the 2000 Olympics such a stunning success. Australia has also been
in the forefront of what
you might call the New Sport: the science-based professional preparation, full of biometrics and psycho-babble, often involving years of nurture, that now lies behind the emergence of just about every star. This applies even in sports such as rugby and cricket that used to pride themselves on their casual ethos.
The Aussies didn’t invent this: the Soviet bloc did. And the East Germans tested the ideas to destruction (of their athletes’ health and, ultimately, of their country) at their drug-fuelled concentration camps for potential champions.
The respectable 21st century variant of this (“East Germany without the drugs,” as someone put it) was pioneered in Canberra, at the Australian Institute of Sport. Since it opened in 1981, coaches and ideas have spread from there across the world.
A country that has not exactly been in the planet’s intellectual forefront has led the way in creating the basis of modern sport. For instance, there are said to be two dozen Australian coaches working at top levels in Britain. And a similar number from New Zealand alone were studying in Canberra in 2005.
But now the open-hearted Aussies are crying enough. They don’t seek sporting excellence for the sake of it. They want Olympic gold medals; they want to mash England at cricket; and they don’t want the New Zealanders interrupting their dominance at the Commonwealth Games, to be held in Melbourne in March – an event taken far more seriously by both sets of Antipodeans than anyone else.
So Peter Fricker, the institute’s director, is slamming the door. In future, Australia’s expertise will no longer be freely available. “I’m really saying ‘no’ to the one-way traffic, where we’re giving it all away for nothing, and I’m saying ‘yes’ to 50-50 co-operation,” said Fricker. “I know it sounds a bit selfish but I think the institute has to be a bit selfish. We are being threatened.”
Canberra had already toughened its rules after Josip Simunic, described
as the most gifted soccer player the institute ever had, announced in 2001 that, having considered his options as a dual national, he would play for Croatia rather than Australia. After that, scholarship holders had to give their allegiance to Australia or hand the money back.
The institute is still a world leader. It has just opened an almost terrifyingly advanced training pool for its swimmers, including 24 fixed cameras, using every imaginable angle that will enable coaches to replay footage almost instantly on huge screens to illustrate technical points. But the lead is diminishing.
National tetchiness was increased after last summer, when Australia’s cricketers lost the Ashes for the first time in almost two decades. England’s resurgence was helped significantly by two Australians, Rod Marsh, who switched from nursing his country’s youngsters to the same job in England, and the fast bowling coach Troy Cooley, so highly regarded that the Aussies have now poached him back.
They are even getting irritable about spectators. Scared that sun-seeking English supporters will dominate the grounds later this year when England go out there to defend the Ashes, they are introducing controls to try to ensure that tickets go mainly to fair dinkum Aussies.
For an Englishman, it is difficult not to chortle. As Frankie Howerd used to say: “Titter ye not!” But there seems also something sad about it all. In the US, we have seen how September 11 turned an open society into a fearful and defensive one. Now, in a very minor key, we are seeing a similar process taking place in Australian sport, simply because they have lost the odd sports fixture. Tragedy repeating itself as triviality.
Nick Hill, head of Sport and Recreation New Zealand, the country’s governing body of sport, reacted to the Canberra clampdown more in sorrow than in anger: “There are not many secrets around the world,” said Hill. “It’s really about the speed at which you innovate, adapt and turn that expertise into results...If they shut themselves off, they’ll find they shut themselves off from the flow of knowledge.”
What the Australians
are saying is that sport
is inseparable from nationalism, that what matters is not excellence for its own sake but beating everyone else.
If a country cares that deeply about winning at sport, one has to wonder
if it is quite as well balanced as it likes to think.