SI Vault
Herbert Warren Wind
May 16, 1960
Australia, like a new-found pot of gold, shines as the latest great power in sport. Here begins the lively and revealing story of this energetic land and people
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May 16, 1960

Over The Rainbow

Australia, like a new-found pot of gold, shines as the latest great power in sport. Here begins the lively and revealing story of this energetic land and people

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Australia is a sports-playing, sports-watching, sports-talking, altogether sports-minded country such as the world has never known before. As a result, when a person from a games-oriented nation such as the United States visits Australia and falls in with the local fandom and practitioners, the gentle rain of sports chatter falls on his ear from morn till night with only sporadic interruption. I have been back a while now from the trip I made to that small and friendly continent this past autumn, and even now I am hard put to recall any conversations in which sport was not the accepted subject or did not inevitably intrude and take over. If the other party is at all vulnerable, Australians will talk sport almost as if they existed for nothing else.

There is a lot to talk about. Until World War II placed it smack in the path of crucial circumstances, Australia was sort of a modern Atlantis, a lost continent. What did they have out there umpteen miles away? Kangaroos, sheep, boomerangs and a few tennis players—so went the general conception. Beyond this, not a blessed thing, and nobody gave Australia much of a thought. Since World War II, however, when the Allies' necessity to produce on the spot mothered an Australian steel industry and some attendant heavy manufacturing, Australia has come like the wind. Most importantly, because of the advances of the air age, the years of isolation from the rest of the world are finally over. Where Australians formerly grew up thinking in the terms that London was 26 days away—this was the usual length of time it took a ship to reach London from Freemantle—today in the jet era Australia is barely 26 hours away from London or New York. At the same time, for all of this wondrous change, Australia remains a young country which is just beginning to investigate itself. Though it is approximately the size of the United States, only 10 million live there, about the same as in Pennsylvania. When you then consider what the Australians have managed to do in the intensely competitive field of international sport against nations with huge populations, it simply staggers your comprehension.

At the present time, for example, Australia holds the Davis Cup, emblematic of world supremacy in amateur tennis. In golf it holds both the Eisenhower cup (the world's amateur team championship) and the Canada Cup (the world's professional team championship). It holds "the Ashes," which means that its cricketers defeated England in their most recent test match. In women's swimming all the world freestyle records are at present held by Australians, and its male swimmers have had an almost similar monopoly since 1956, the year of Australia's sudden aquatic renaissance. In track and field its women athletes are unrivaled over the shorter distances, and its men, since the arrival of John Landy in 1954 as the world's second sub-four-minute miler, have moved out in front in the middle-distance events such as the mile and 1,500-meter runs in which the current world's records (3:54.5 and 3:36) were set by the truly amazing Herb Elliott.

And what an array of individual stars, along with Landy and Elliott, has burst forth!—Peter Thomson, winner of the British Open in 1954, '55, '56 and '58... Frank Sedgman, that beautiful tennis player, won twice at Forest Hills and once at Wimbledon... Lew Hoad, another two-time winner at Wimbledon, not to mention Ken Rosewall, Mal Anderson, Ashley Cooper and Neale Fraser, who have in recent summers all won the United States championship and have made it four years in a row that an Australian has done so...the two Konrads kids, John, now 17, and Ilsa, 15, who between them hold over a dozen world swimming marks...also in swimming, the two record holders for the 100-meter freestyle, Dawn Fraser and John Devitt, and that consummate stylist, Murray Rose, who won the 400-and 1,500-meter freestyle events in the last Olympics.

Let us mention just a few more and then call a halt: Albert Thomas, the rising middle-distance runner, world record holder at two miles and three miles; Merv Lincoln, the miler who has up to now been forced into the role of Elliott's shadow but who has five times broken four minutes; in auto racing Jack Brabham, who ended his 1959 season as the winner of the FIA world driving championship. It is by no means a complete catalog, but there is no point in citing the heroes of cricket and Australian-rules football in which American interest is, shall we say, somewhat less than white-hot.

Why are the Australians such superb athletes? Indirectly the answer begins with the realization there is a lot more to Australia and Australians than the conventional stereotype accommodates. "The romantic conception of the Australian," John Landy was remarking this past autumn, "is a man on horseback on a dry flat plain. Frankly, he's pretty rare nowadays. We have been changing all along the line and at a very rapid rate. For example, up to recent years we haven't had too much of the automobile. Now we're certainly in the auto age. For another thing, we're fast becoming a race of city dwellers." More than a third of the 10 million Australians, as a matter of fact, now live in two cities—2 million in Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, over a million and a half in Melbourne, the capital of Victoria. As good a way as any to become introduced to the country's unbelievable absorption in sport is to take a drive around either of these cities on a Saturday or Sunday. It soon becomes evident, even from this superficial vantage, why there is so much cream at the top of Australian sport: there is an enormous amount of milk at the bottom.

The Sunday after the Canada Cup was concluded last autumn I made my first extensive drive around Melbourne. Weary of sports after four straight days of watching golf, I was quite unmindful that I was setting up a classic appointment in Samarra, for some friends had told me that on the weekend everyone cleared out and went either to the beaches or to the handy beauty spots in the Dandenong Mountains. Downtown, true enough, there was no one around. The residents of Sydney (who carry on a feud with the residents of Melbourne akin to that between Los Angeles and San Francisco or Montreal and Toronto) are not far off the mark when they give you a mischievous little wink and declare, "I spent a fortnight in Melbourne last Sunday." All the bars were closed, no newspapers were being printed or sold, all the restaurants were closed, all the movie houses were closed, all the sparkling new espresso shops were closed. A little farther out, though, in the wide stretches of parkland along and beyond the Yarra River, it was entirely different: life was not only stirring, it was humming.

In all the large parks every tennis court was filled, and trackmen were loosening their fibulae on the periphery. But the main activity was cricket, December being close to midsummer in Australia. In one typical broad sweep of grassed land, no less than seven cricket games were going on. In one of these the players were clad in white shirts and white flannels, but in the other games they appeared as heterogeneously as a Married Men vs. Single Men baseball fracas in an old-fashioned factory outing. The children and wives of the players, strong-faced working-class people all, lounged and ate sandwiches on the edge of the field or in autos parked along the curb. Invariably, there was one vehicle with an 18-gallon keg of beer. The cricketers would adjourn their game every 40 minutes or so, head for the keg and yield the pitch to the young 'uns, and then, refreshed in mind and spirit, resume the battle.

" AMERICA IN 1900"

"This is all very much like the United States at the turn of the century," I said to my cab driver after seeing this pattern repeated in park after park.

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