SI Vault
Herbert Warren Wind
May 23, 1960
What are the secrets of Australia's surge to sporting greatness? In the last of two parts, the author finds his answer—and some other revelations
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 23, 1960

The Will And The Way

What are the secrets of Australia's surge to sporting greatness? In the last of two parts, the author finds his answer—and some other revelations

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

One of the first facts anyone learns about Australia is that it is a large place with few people. The more you get to know about that remote continent the more you appreciate that there is no other fact—except possibly its very isolation—quite as significant as this odd disparity of 10 millions occupying a land about the size of the United States. There is plenty of room, about 3.5 people to the square mile; in Europe there are 327. Since just about every aspect of life in Australia seems to be reflected in its sports, which it pursues with an almost vehement enthusiasm, it should come as no surprise to discover that Australian-rules football, the one new game the country has invented, is played on an oval field roughly 200 yards long by 150 yards wide, about twice the size of an American football gridiron. A cross between Gaelic football and Rugby, with some overtones of basketball—the 18 players on a side are pitted in man-to-man duels—Australian-rules is a wide-open game which features rugged tackling (below the neck and above the knees), long and controlled drop-kicking and a spectacular specialty called "high marking" in which a player will leap way off the ground to catch a ball booted into his territory and the man covering him will try to get up even higher. If either succeeds in pulling the ball in on the fly and holding onto it, his team receives a free kick on the opponents' goal from that spot.

Though you would expect it to be, Australian-rules football is not at present the national game. It is played mainly in the three states which front on the Southern Ocean: Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria, with Melbourne its hotbed. This undoubtedly goes a long way toward explaining why Sydney (the capital of New South Wales, the most populous and influential state) has stubbornly stuck with Rugby, for the two metropolises are intransigent rivals, and for Sydney to take up something Melbourne is famous for would amount not to adoption but capitulation. In the southern states, though, the Australian-rules season brings on a rampant fever of interest comparable to our annual autumn convulsion. Everyone roots (or barracks) ferociously for his team, even persons like John Landy, whose temperament is otherwise noticeably restrained. Landy played it as a boy. So did Herb Elliott. That's where he got his nose banged up. It's a very Australian game.


Technically, my visit to the small continent this past autumn was my second. In 1943, when my outfit was en route to China, the troopship anchored off Freemantle, the port for Perth, for three days, and we got ashore on two of them. I remember very little about that short stopover except that the Australian girls were as wholesome and unaloof as we had heard, and that a troupe of local entertainers put on a show at the dock climaxed by the inevitable rendering of Waltzing Matilda by the entire ensemble.

This folk ballad, long a kind of unofficial national anthem, tells the story of a swagman who has stolen a sheep, and today there are quite a number of Australians who are of the opinion that it should be played far less often, if at all. They contend the subject matter presents their country in an incorrect and unfavorable light. A far more self-critical people than is generally recognized, Australians admit that this sort of touchiness stems from a kind of national inferiority complex, which also prompts their predilection for knocking themselves good-humoredly and the relish some of them take in being conspicuously and audibly Australian when in strange locales thousands of miles from home. They also know that they are sometimes direct to the point of abrasiveness.

Better than anyone else they understand their ambivalent attitude toward Britain—their resentment of anything smacking of stuffy colonialistic ritual and distinction, and, conversely, the honest sense of security they draw from their ties with the mother country. (They are, for example, in no hurry to adopt an official national anthem of their own to replace God Save the Queen.) They are modest about their national virtues, which are abundant, to say the least, and are genuinely delighted when visitors comment, say, on their deep-going friendliness and their astonishing lack of all affectation, or when visitors simply remark that Australians today seem to lead a very good life.

There are no two ways about this: they do. Nearly every family has a nice little home, standing on its own plot of land, usually with a small garden. Few people are rich by American standards, but then they do not have our extremes of poverty either. There are no slums as we know them. "The Australians did not play both ends against the middle, but they are in a position today where they enjoy the fruits of both socialism and capitalism," Fred Hubbard, a well-informed American journalist who has spent the last decade in Australia, has said. "On the one hand, one out of every four Australians works for the government, and legislation has provided the workingman with liberal sick leaves, long-service leaves, goodly pensions and a generous medical setup which even includes a bonus for having a baby. On the other hand, one out of every four Australians now drives an auto and 60,000 are shareholders in the Broken Hill Proprietory Company, the vast steel combine."


Culturally, to be sure, Australia has produced and offered little. One of the reasons why sport has always loomed so large is the limited means of other diversion: there are few theatrical productions or concerts, hardly any light or jazz music, a paucity of newspapers and lively periodicals. Nonsporting entertainment consists principally of going to English and American movies and watching television. (A high proportion of the feature shows on television, incidentally, are kinescopes or tapes of American series, and if you have missed a few stirring chapters of such classics as the Bob Cummings Show or Sergeant Preston of the Yukon , this is the place to catch them.) The young person of talent often must go abroad to realize it. Compared to the large number of Australian athletes who have earned worldwide reputations—I would guess that a dinner table of knowledgeable Americans might name as many as 20—few have gained a comparable renown in other fields. The same dinner table would probably come up with Nellie Melba, the opera star; Henry Handel Richardson, the authoress; Errol Flynn (from Tasmania); Percy Grainger, the composer; Judith Anderson and Cyril Ritchard of the stage; Annette Kellerman, who popularized the one-piece bathing suit; Alan Moorehead, the writer; maybe Ray Lawler, the author of that splendid play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll—but after this they would find the going hard.

It is easy to understand why sport has traditionally been the area into which Australia threw its interest and its heart. To begin with, the climate is ideal—softly temperate, Californian, you might say, congenial to sports the year round. Moreover, if over the years Australians had few other riches, they enjoyed marvelous natural facilities for sports—the sea was handy, the grass was hardy, broad expanses of public parkland were at their disposal, and cities, schools and clubs were quick to take advantage of the plenteous elbow room and set up first-class sports grounds. Australians had the time for sports, too, for they had never really bought the nose-to-the-grindstone philosophy and they worked at least as hard at sport as at their trades.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5