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Rugby league is largely a semiprofessional game but with heavy amateur schoolboy participation. On a football big-game day it is impossible to get anyplace on public transportation, or even to hire somebody to work.
As far as participant sports go, Australia's fiercest fanaticism is reserved for swimming. Any ordinary summer Sunday may find beautiful beaches jammed; and on a good hot Christmas Day (the last was in the high 90s, with matching humidity), it is hard to find sunning space. Even the smaller cities have many bathers and this in spite of the aforementioned hazards.
Away from salt surf, Australian swimming is also important. The 36 swimming and 12 diving positions filled for this year's Olympic squad included Lorraine Crapp, who set four world freestyle records in one race just two weeks ago; Dawn Fraser, who has bettered the 20-year-old world 100-meter record, and Faith Leech, promising sprint swimmer. Murray Rose, Jon Henricks and Gary Chapman will defend the men's reputation established by John Marshall in setting world's 440-yard, 880-yard and mile freestyle records in 1950-51. Australians also expect an Olympic victory for the women's relay team.
But none of these stars has any chance of equaling the former polio sufferer who turned three unsuccessful English Channel swims and a one-piece bathing suit into a world reputation. Annette Kellerman, without whom there could not have been a Bikini, still is an Australian pride nearly 50 years after the peak of her fame. (She now lives in California.)
The 700 water skiers in Australia still are curiosities but draw crowds of 5,000 to major meets—and run speedboats around and around on bays to frighten away sharks before they start skiing. In rowing, emphasis is on single and double sculling. Merv Wood, who rowed in an eight-oared crew at Berlin in 1936, switched to singles and won a gold medal at London in 1948 but was second to Yuri Tjukalov, a Russian, in 1952. This year he has made the Australian Olympic double sculling team. But none of the current rowing crop has color to compare with Bobby Pearce, who set a 2,000-meter Olympic single sculling record on Holland's Sloten Canal in 1928—after shooing away a brood of ducklings which blocked his lane. This record broke one set by J. B. Kelly (father of Grace) in 1920. Like Kelly, Pearce in 1928 was barred from the Henley ( England) Diamond Sculls because, as a carpenter, he wasn't officially a gentleman. By 1930 he was picking up scrap paper on Sydney's show grounds for a few shillings a day, but later that year accepted an offer from Lord Dewar, a Scottish distiller, to become his Canadian sales representative. Lord Dewar promptly nominated him for Henley again—and, as a salesman, he was declared eligible and won by six lengths in 1931. Pearce took his second Olympic medal at Los Angeles in 1932 and the following year defeated Ted Phelps of England by 200 yards in a three-mile race to take the world's professional sculling title at Toronto. Pearce was so proficient that he dominated the pros right up to the outbreak of World War II.
Yachting in Australia is highlighted by the Sydney-Hobart ( Tasmania) race, annually started on Boxing Day with a dozen boats competing over the 680-mile course in the Tasman Sea. This year four entrants exceeded 50 feet, but a couple of 33-footers, undazzled, moved out with the bigger boats. Specially built 24-footers and 18-footers always have been featured in harbor sailing, especially on Port Jackson (Sydney harbor), although the 24-footer is now mostly obsolete. It carried a mainsail, jib and 10 extras: 4,000 square feet of canvas. Lightly built, open and shallow drafted, it sometimes boated a crew of 20, who managed balance in heavy weather by leaning outboard one on top of the other. Subsequently, 18-footers with 7-foot beams and 1,500 feet of canvas appeared. In addition, traffic hazards are created by 5,800 registered VJs in the ports, plus numerous Moths and other 12-foot types. Really big pleasure boats are few, and heavily powered cruisers (because of the cost of engines and fuel) almost nonexistent.
On land, Aussies are no less enthusiastic. Golf is gaining in popularity (one person in every 36 plays). With 2 million people, Greater Sydney has 65 courses, the state of New South Wales 250. Public links fees start at a shilling (approximately 11�).
An unusual factor is that many golf clubs have bowed to the wishes of important members: they wanted bowling greens. Bowls is possibly Australia's most elegant game. It is played by 1,240 clubs, with 130,000 members. Each of these pays about $27 to join and another $16 as annual dues. The wearing of uniforms on the green is strictly enforced. No one may display colors other than the club colors, e.g., if a man wore a blue tie (they wear ties even in 100� temperatures) when the club tie is red, he would be asked to leave the green. A manufacturer advertises proper equipment: four bowls (3�-pound, oblate spheres), shoes without heels, gabardine trousers, special shirts, and jackets cut like suit coats.
Few sports produce more action than cycling at the North Essenden track, where recently bicycle riders had to get down and help police and stewards quell a riot. Sadly, all bets were canceled. The track owner was upset, however, only when a telephone caller announced he planned to kidnap the owner's two small boys unless riders' fees were raised. Even when there are no fights, interest remains high. There are 51 amateur clubs in New South Wales alone.
Just as flamboyant is Australia's toughest automobile contest, a reliability test formerly known as the Redex Trial, in which the requirement is to drive an auto 10,500 miles around Australia, at specified speeds for each leg. The start of this race last August was watched by 100,000 people; and of the 176 starting cars, including everything from midgets to machines the size of Cadillacs, 60 finished. The test had something for everybody; five cars booked for speeding the first day; water found in gas tanks; 15 cars wrecked on the fourth leg, six more ditched by boulders at a creek near Cairns; a Volkswagen being repaired with a safety pin borrowed from a baby's diaper; a diesel out after hitting a 7-foot kangaroo; drivers hypnotized in order to bear up under the beating; dozens mired in a sand bed near Katherine in the Northern Territory; and the winner ultimately decided only after appeals to the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria.