|Issue No 110||07 September 2001|
The Locker Room
Blowing the Whistle on Nationalism
Extracted from Good Sports by Peter Kell
Sport, once seen as a rallying point for national unity, is now more problematic - a vehicle for nationalisation that is out of step with the changes in the society that once created it.
The concept of nation itself is breaking down in a world where major nations and sporting powers like the former Soviet Union have dissolved into a myriad of independent republics. The diminishing importance of nationalism as the prime motivation for sports stars is evident in the way countries such as the United States can, with huge sums of money, lure tennis stars such as Pete Sampras to represent them in the Davis Cup. Representing the nation now means little more than that; it doesn't necessarily involve any sense of 'belonging' or an intense loyalty to that nation. Nor is there any overt shame in selling skills to the highest bidder. These sports stars are the paid representatives of the countries that hire them.
There are several key challenges for Australian sporting organizations and administrators if they are to reconceptualise a sense of nationalism which supersedes the legacy of racism and insularity which has, to date, always characterised Australia's sporting relations. There is a need for leading figures in sporting organizations to come to grips with the challenges that have emerged from the dynamics of globalisation and to move beyond images of an Australianess which is only sustained by jingoistic hype and bears scant resemblance to Australian society today.
This book has sought to document a number of contemporary issues in the media in order to illustrate the story which remains hidden behind the news; a story about intolerance and xenophobia which is rarely spoken about. It is a story about the continued tensions which emerge from a failure to appreciate the role sport has in perpetuating many of the racist myths that have sustained a sense of Australian nationalism. From the early days of federation Australian nationalism has been nurtured on racial anxiety, a distrust of foreigners and an insularity from the outside world which has created an inward-looking society beset by a deeply ingrained xenophobia. Australian nationalism, for these reasons, has been characterised by attempts to sublimate and oppress difference, rather than acknowledge or welcome it.
Even when it seemed that the barriers of cultural insularity needed to come down during the waves of postwar migration, the intake of foreigners was only accepted with reluctance; justified on the basis that they would become real Aussies who were 'just like us'. It meant that those wher were different were expected to become less like themselves and aligned with the anglocentric view Australians had of themselves. Sport in Australia has been scarred by these assimilationist policies that saw sport as a convenient way to facilitate integration into mainstream Australia. The myth that sport is a vehicle for acceptance that could forge new international partnerships ha been built on such premises.
This myth has meant that Australian sporting administrators, media commentators, participants, stars and fans are continually responding to a shifting and complex environment as if they were in a time warp. They are seeing the world through a prism which distorts it and is, for this reason, totally inappropriate in the context of a globalised, professional sporting climate where notions of identity and nation are diffuse and complex. It is a narrow and parochial prism which turns the viewpoint inward; a prism which has restricted the range of vision of the Australian sporting community into monochromatic images that do nothing to illuminate the colourful spectrum of diversity that enriches Australia.
One of the key challenges Australians face is to develop a critical awareness of the extent to which this racist legacies behind Australian sport and use this awareness to produce change. This change has to be accompanied by a profound and systematic re-examination and questioning of the myths that are an accepted part of the fabric of Australian sport. As we have seen in the stories related in this book, sport is typified by exclusion, hostility, vilification and inequality. It is a shocking story that starkly contradicts claims that sport has been, and indeed in its present form can be, crucial in defining a new more mature and independent international Australia.
In this atmosphere events such as the recent incidents of racial vilification in the AFL are seen as coming 'out of the blue' rather than as entrenched in the sports culture. In this way they can be waved aside rather than be confronted. Current administrative responses in the form of racial vilification rules and codes of practice may provide a framework to resolve occasional incidents but they do nothing to challenge complacency and entrenched intolerance. In fact, as these incidents are increasing in frequency and are now involving senior sporting administrators and managers with, in some cases, national responsibilities, complacency is the lease effective stance to be taking.
Similarly, fines and suspensions can do little to rid sport of dangerous and violent tactics. Punitive action cannot change attitudes; only better preparation to position athletes in the context of globisation can do this. Professional sporting organizations have already responded to the need to cater for the growing demands of the intensified physical aspects of professional sport. Training, diet, scientific monitoring andmodern management techniques are now a part of the preparation of the modern athlete. It is time to include social and cultural training in the knowledge of the professional athlete as well.
These athletes are poorly prepared and unaware of many of the complexities of race, identity, nationalism and inequality. Part of the preparation of superstar sporting celebrities should be to increase their ability to competently deal with these complexities. This does not just mean cultural awareness classes about how to deal with 'others', but something of greater complexity. It is about understanding the broader story and learning a new way to view their sport and their responsibilities in order to model behaviour and attitudes which demonstrate tolerance and understanding. The new global athletes fit into a new social order and they need both the preparation and the corporate support systems which will enable them to meet these additional off-field challenges.
The new sports stars also need to be able to recognise the social and political context of their sport together with its history and place in the formation of the racial legacy of Australian sport. At its most basic this may be some form of training and preparation and at its most complex it may involve a broader recognition of diversity through reforms to the administration of sporting organizations. Increasingly sporting organizations will need to be more aware of how to tap into diversified supporter bases and this will require better linkages with ethnic communities and international communities. In the new era, overseas chapters of support similar to those of Manchester United and the Chicago Bulls will be crucial to the economic survival of some clubs. Limited supporter bases will spell the end for many clubs and sports.
Survival and prosperity in the future may mean organizational responses that include a broader representation on boards of management, the appointment of mentors and advisers from members of ethnic and indigenous communities, the adoption of sister club twinning with overseas clubs and the recruitment of ethnic support groups. Many of the case studies documented in this book are the result of management and administration which is incapable of recognising the changes necessary in working in a community typified by diversity and globalisation. Sports administrators have shifted rapidly from being part-time amateurs to full-time professionals. Unless the skills of Australian sporting administrators are improved, they are likely only to prolong Australian's image problems as an undisciplined pack of racists.
Good Sports, Australian sport and the myth of a fair go by Peter Kell is available from Pluto Press
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History: Johnny's Naruan Wet Dream
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Unions: Getting the Message Out
Caroline Alcorso argues the integration of immigrant workers into the trade union movement has been a central issue in Australia’s post-war labor history.
Work/Time/Life: Driven To The Edge
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Review: Whose Party?
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