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Sport in Australian culture

Australia is often considered to be a 'sports mad' country. Our love of sport is reflected in the numbers of people who play sport, attend sporting events and view sport on television. Australia leads the world in sports science and in the technical development of television sporting coverage.

Sport and our national identity

For a nation with a relatively small population, Australia performs remarkably well at an international level. Sporting success, particularly on the world stage, enables the creation of a distinct national identity. Victorious sports people often become national heroes and some, like legendary cricketer Donald Bradman, become revered as Australian icons.

The popularity of sport in Australia can partly be attributed to a warm climate that encourages people to get outdoors and be active. Sport also enables well-loved national values like 'mateship', 'having a go', and 'egalitarianism' (the assumption that that all people are equal), to be played out. Australians also revel in the expression of 'fair play' on the sporting field - hence, sports cheats are often chastised for being 'un-Australian.'

Sport as a reflection of social change

A close examination of sport can yield other important discoveries about changes in Australian culture over time. As Australian society became more commercialised and globalised, so too did our sport. From an amateur, locally-based pastime, sport in Australia gradually evolved into a professional, highly lucrative industry with international scope.

The development of sport in Australia also reflects the gradual movement of our culture away from its British roots, towards a more Americanised, yet distinctly Australian cultural hybrid. While sports like cricket and the various codes of rugby point to our British heritage, modern sports like basketball demonstrate the penetration of American influence into our culture. At the same time, local sports like Australian Rules football continue to thrive.

Sport in the 1980s

Australian sporting achievements were excitedly celebrated by the whole nation in the 1980s. Thousands of Australians gathered to cheer the home team at the Brisbane Commonwealth Games and the nation was brought together when Australia II won the America's Cup yacht race.

Paralleling this rise in national spirit was the increasing reach of commercialism into the sporting realm. Corporate interests took control of many Australian sports in the 1980s, injecting millions of dollars into competitions and changing the way sports were played.

Australian sport came head-to-head with world politics in the 1980s, when several countries boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Some Australian athletes chose to compete at the Games against the wishes of the Australian Government.

Brisbane Commonwealth Games - 1982

National pride surged in 1982 when Brisbane hosted the Commonwealth Games. Forty-five nations took part in the event and Australia topped the medal tally with 107 medals, 39 of them gold.

The Commonwealth Games also served to spur participation in some sports. Long-distance running, for example, became popular after Robert de Castella won a gold medal in the Marathon event.

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The Olympics

Throughout the 1980s, the Olympic Games were marked by political controversy. In 1980, America boycotted the Moscow Olympics in protest over Russia's invasion of Afghanistan. The Fraser Government supported the boycott and wanted Australian athletes to follow suit. Some athletes ignored the government's wishes and chose to compete, marching under the Olympic, rather than the national flag. Australians saw little success at the Moscow Games, winning just nine medals, two of them gold.

In 1984, the USSR and many of its allies retaliated to the boycott, by refusing to attend the Los Angeles Olympics. Australia won nine medals at the Games, including four gold.

1983 America's Cup win

In 1983, the yacht Australia II won the America's Cup in a thrilling finish, ending America's 132-year domination of the race. The victory inspired an emotional celebration all around Australia and boosted national pride.

To this day, the America's Cup win is considered to be one of the most important events in the nation's sporting history. The victory prompted the declaration of an unofficial public holiday, with Prime Minister Bob Hawke famously announcing on national television that 'any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum'.

Corporate sponsorship was considered to have played a large role in Australia's victory, with entrepreneur Alan Bond injecting millions of dollars into Australia's America's Cup campaign.

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The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS)

The Commonwealth Government committed millions of dollars into sporting schemes throughout the decade, in an effort to improve Australia's international performances, as well as to promote health and fitness in the wider community.

In 1981, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) opened in Canberra. The AIS aims to help talented athletes reach their potential. It provides specialised education, training, expert coaches, science and sports medicine services and state-of-the-art facilities across many different sports.

1980s - The era of sports science

The discipline of sports science advanced rapidly in the 1980s and became a popular subject choice at Australian universities. Sports science applies scientific principles to the human body, in an attempt to better the performance of athletes.

New knowledge in areas like nutrition, psychology and bio-mechanics were applied to Australian sportspeople and new technology was used to analyse their technique. As a result, the performance of many athletes improved markedly in the 1980s.

Television and corporate sponsorship in the 1980s

Money flowed freely into sport during the 1980s, as big businesses realised that they could gain huge television exposure by sponsoring a sporting competition, team, or individual sportsperson. As a result, television coverage and corporate sponsorship became a major source of finance for many Australian sports.

Corporate sponsors did not just display their logos on players' jerseys - they changed the way some sports were played and marketed.

Television stations paid such large sums of money to broadcast matches, so they began to dictate the time of day that games were played. One-day cricket, for example, was played at night to maximise the potential television audience. Many football matches in the 1980s were also rescheduled to evening time slots.

While such scheduling of matches may have satisfied the needs of television stations and sponsors, some people argued that playing at night was not in the best interests of the players themselves.

Australian Rules Football in the 1980s

Television provided the motivation for the national expansion of Australian Rules football. Prior to the 1980s, Australian Rules was not a national competition, with each State holding their own league. In 1980, however, the Victorian Football League (VFL) began broadcasting their match of the day on national television. As interest in the game increased around the country, new teams from other States joined the Victorian league.

In 1982, for example, the South Melbourne club moved to Sydney and became Sydney Swans. In 1987, the West Coast Eagles and the Brisbane Bears also joined the competition. In 1990, the VFL was renamed the Australian Football League (AFL).

This transformation of Australian Rules was largely driven by business groups, who provided the millions of dollars needed to turn the game into a national competition.

Rugby league in the 1980s

Rugby league in Australia was re-invigorated in the 1980s, when teams from Canberra, Brisbane, Newcastle and the Gold Coast joined the New South Wales based competition. This expansion of the league created new markets for the broadcast of football games. Television stations were charged millions of dollars for the right to broadcast matches and businesses signed huge deals to sponsor the sport.

In 1989, the Winfield cigarette company was reported to have paid around $13 million dollars to become the official sponsors of the national rugby league competition.

Effect of commercialisation on local sport in the 1980s

Commercialisation had a mixed effect on Australian sport in the 1980s. While many national and international competitions flourished, local competitions did not fare as well.

International cricket, for example, entered an exciting new era. Kickstarted in the 1970s by businessman Kerry Packer's World Series cricket, international Test matches and one-day cricket enjoyed massive crowds and huge television audiences. Subsequently, though, the more traditional State-level Sheffield Shield competition suffered a marked decline in interest.

This effect was echoed in both rugby league and Australian Rules football, whereby the inclusion of regional and interstate teams into the national leagues led to a dwindling public interest in local competitions.

Tennis in the 1980s

Australians made a notable impact on the national tennis scene in the 1980s. Evonne Goolagong-Cawley won the Wimbledon women's singles title in 1980, and Pat Cash took out the Wimbledon men's final in 1987.

Sports participation in the 1980s

Sports participation remained high throughout the 1980s. Soccer, AFL, league, union and cricket were played widely in the 1980s, while netball was by far the most popular women's sport.

In the latter half of the decade, the popularity of basketball skyrocketed and many young Australians began to idolise American basketball stars like Michael Jordan.

Women and sport in the 1980s

The study of sport can yield valuable information on the status and roles of particular groups in society as a whole. Traditionally, groups like Indigenous people, ethnic minorities and women have been discriminated against, or treated unequally in relation to sports participation. This treatment is thought to reflect the prevailing cultural attitudes towards these groups.

In the 1960s and 1970s, women had demanded equal status to men in many areas of social, political and cultural life, including the sporting sphere. Some women challenged society's expectations by taking up sports like golf, cricket, football, long-distance running and even weight lifting.

In the 1980s, equal opportunity laws made it illegal to discriminate against a person on the grounds of sex, marital status or pregnancy. As a result, women in the 1980s were entitled to full membership and unrestricted access to sporting clubs.

Women performed well in many previously male dominated sports throughout the decade. In international women's cricket, Australia won the World Cup in 1981/2 and 1988/9 and produced many outstanding individual performances. In 1987, for example, Denise Annetts scored 193 against England, breaking the world record for runs scored in a women's Test cricket match.

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While women were gradually accepted into almost all kinds of sport, history has shown that they would continue to struggle to achieve true sporting equality with men, particularly in the areas of funding and media coverage.

According to some critics, this discrimination and marginalisation of certain groups within sport goes against fundamental Australian values like 'egalitarianism', or equality for all.


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