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If there ever was a time for examining the Australian sporting picture with curiosity, the approaching Olympics make this the hour. Just what sort of sports country is this isolated continent? Here is a nation with the best tennis in the world. Here is a gentleman named John Landy who runs a mile faster than anybody else. Here too is the remarkable Surf Life Saving Association, whose beautifully conditioned and well-organized members, some of whom are shown on these pages, guard Australia's extensive beaches voluntarily and without pay. The devotion to swimming safety of these heavy-muscled young men is the more impressive when set off against the treacherous natural hazards which they face almost as a matter of course-a rough, uncompromising surf, occasional forays by vicious sharks close to shore and numerous Portuguese men-of-war.
What the lifeguards have done they have done so long that it is highly doubtful whether they think of their loyalty and courage as anything special. In an Australian sense, it probably isn't. The five years of training, then the three days donated each month to guarding are fairly typical of this country of rugged, democratic people. Just as typical, though perhaps not as praiseworthy, are several events that took place in Sydney and Melbourne not long ago.
In Sydney, trotting fans queued up before two entrances to Harold Park—at Maxwell Road and Ross Street. At a signal, the gates flew open and the patrons stormed in from two directions. The two groups finally met approximately halfway between portals, and the results were almost catastrophic. But nobody complained.
In Melbourne, somebody sold 400 seats in seven flat rows for basketball games at the Olympics. In the ensuing uproar K. B. Watson, a basketball official, pointed out rightly that the Australian public would immediately stand on their purchased seats and there would be chaos.
And chaos in Australian sports is not something to be dismissed lightly, as Emile Koroschenko discovered. Koroschenko didn't especially mind being bounced out of a Sydney wrestling ring by one King Kong and landing on his head. Even the iron stanchion he hit on the way down ordinarily might have done little damage. But it was 20 minutes before 12,000 rabid wrestling fans would move back far enough so ambulance men could pick Emile out of the seats.
The events are rough and boisterous—and so are the people. Australians love to play, generally in large packs, and always with a bounce and verve reminiscent of a kangaroo—but they love to watch too, and they'll go in vast droves to almost any sporting event, be it a giant spectacle or an insignificant match.
Take the 100,000 persons who live so far out in the Outback that their sport often must be on the level of seeing how many pink and gray parrots (galahs) can be knocked off a wire with a single shot. Out there, picnic race meets may attract neighborly punters (bettors) from a 500-mile radius. In the far north, tropical, gully-washed and swampy on the coasts, there are such sporting events as spotlighting crocodiles, hunting water buffalo long gone wild, or running wild camels and wild donkeys away from cattle station gardens. A man can find a kangaroo to shoot—if he thinks it contributes to his masculinity. But otherwise, in the far back blocks, kicking over an ant hill (which may be tough when it's 20 feet high) is top entertainment, and there are Australians who even bet on this pastime.
Other sports, like everything else, are concentrated in the major coastal cities: Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, with a small bow to lonely, western Perth and insular Hobart in Tasmania. There are between 30 and 40 "important" sports in Australia, among them vigoro, a variety of cricket played by women for which a section of Forsyth Park has been set aside in North Sydney; and "ball" punching, or, as U.S. boxers put it, punching the bag. It is not the same thing, however.
Australian ball-punchers never box. One Neil Flanagan, in Brisbane, claimed a world's title after punching for 128 hours and 20 minutes, then drank a glass of champagne to celebrate. Ron Ruenalf, also of Brisbane, figures his life total at 27 million punches, his one-time best at 580,000 without stopping. For this last he collected $2,250 from people who will pay to see anything. Oh yes, Ruenalf regained his world's title in March, with 178 hours of punching and no ill effects except swollen feet.
Several of Australia's sports are variations on football, each one important in its own way to Australia's 9 million people. There is soccer, with the normal 11 players and rules. All states and most towns have teams, but soccer is just a beginning. After it comes Rugby, in two varieties: Rugby union (15 players, strictly amateur) and Rugby league (13 players, not so amateur). Then there's Australian rules football (18 players), which sometimes sends the spectators into as much of a frenzy as it does the players. When the village team of Lake Boga traveled to meet Lalvert for the mid-Murray "premiership," 598 people went along. Two—Jim Jolly, 76, and Jack Acres, 85—stayed home in Lake Boga—but only because they missed the bus. At the game the radio commentator stopped describing the play to detail the much more interesting fights among the spectators.