Wallaroo rugby union player Louise Burrows, author John Harms, Australian Rugby League Commissioner Dr Chris Sarra, former Matildas player Sally Shipard and Olympic swimmer Christian Sprenger with ABC RN presenter Paul Barclay, 18 August 2016
Dr MAT TRINCA: Good evening everybody. It’s great to see you all here tonight. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Mat Trinca and I’m the Director of the National Museum of Australia. I would like to start, as we always do here at the Museum, by acknowledging that we meet on the land of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of this place. I would also like to pay respects to their elders both past and present. I extend this respect, this welcome, this acknowledgment to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who are here this evening.
Thanks for dragging yourselves away from the Olympics coverage and coming to hear this important and timely debate about the role of sport in Australian culture and identity. It is very timely, isn’t it really? This panel is part of the National Museum’s headline Defining Moments in Australian History project which aims to stimulate discussion about events that have had, or are having, a profound significance on Australians. In consultation with a panel of eminent historians, the Museum developed an initial list of 100 defining moments. We then asked the public to nominate their own moments, what they thought was important, and ever since we did so the suggestions have been pouring in, which is good because that was the intention. At last count we’re up to about another 250 extra public nominations.
Now, unsurprisingly for a country that’s pretty – do we say – ‘obsessed’ with sport, in a good way, sporting moments feature on the defining moments list. On our list there were things like the first organised game of Australian Rules Football in 1858, the first Melbourne Cup horse race in ‘61 – that is 1861 – famously the Aboriginal cricket team touring England in 1868. Clearly a lot things happened around the 1860s in Australia. Then the Ashes Bodyline series in the 1930s. And even the fact that television was introduced in Australia for the first Olympic Games ever held in this country.
The public has added a great many other moments as well. They include things like – perhaps infamously – Australia beating New Zealand with a controversial underarm bowl in the final of the World Series Cup at the MCG. I don’t know whether we have ever gotten over that, quite frankly. It was in 1981, can you believe that? Australia II winning the America’s Cup yacht race. I remember watching that and cheering the yacht across the line on that last race. I think it’s impossible to forget Cathy Freeman using both flags in her victory laps at the Commonwealth Games in the 1990s but then, of course, winning the 400m in Sydney and bringing a tear to everybody’s eye in this country.
It’s fair to say that Australians are enthralled by sport. Sport helps shape us as a society and often provides a stage on which broader social issues are played out. Tonight our esteemed panel will explore the role sport plays in Australian life and what role it should play. We will hear from athletes on the front line about how it feels to be in the spotlight. I would like to welcome our panellists: Olympic swimmer Christian Sprenger; former Matilda soccer player Sally Shipard; author and AFL commentator John Harms; Australian Rugby League Commission member Dr Chris Sarra; Wallaroo rugby player Louise Burrows; and of course our favourite son at the ABC, ABC Radio National host Paul Barclay returns to host tonight’s discussion.
I would also like to thank some organisations that have partnered with us in this event as without their support it would not have been possible to bring these people together and to have you here for this discussion. In particular, the Australian Institute of Sport, the Australian Sports Commission, the Griffith Review – the edition of Griffith Review: ‘Our Sporting Life’ will actually be on sale after the discussion – and of course ABC RN. This discussion is being recorded for broadcast on ABC RN’s Big Ideas program next week. Time permitting Paul will take some audience questions at the end of the discussion. So keep an eye out for the staff who will have microphones at the ready. Before we start can I remind you to switch your phones either to silent or to turn them off completely. I will hand over to Paul to introduce our panel in detail and to kick off proceedings. Thanks, Paul.
PAUL BARCLAY: Thanks, Mat. Thanks to all of you for coming along tonight when there is so much sport on offer on the TV set. It’s a very deep level of sacrifice you’ve shown coming along tonight. It’s terrific to be here at the National Museum – always a delight. I love coming here. We have a collaboration going with the National Museum on a number of fronts, but in particular in relation to their Defining Moments in Australian History series. We will be doing another one of these events next month on immigration. Stand by for more about that.
As Mat said, I am from Big Ideas on ABC Radio National. We are recording this for my program. It will go to air on Monday night. So tell all of your friends who were foolish enough not to be here tonight that they can hear it on RN at 8pm on Monday or podcast through our website. As Mat said, we are a sports obsessed lot – Australians. Australian identity and myth making frequently finds expression on the sporting field: fair play, punching above our weight, having a go, triumph in the face of adversity, dignity in the face of defeat, sport as a social leveller. We like to see these as things that encapsulate who we are on and off the sporting arena.
Millions of us hold our breath when Australians compete, especially when a well-fancied Australian team or individual competes. We are so invested psychologically and financially in sporting success that there are almost royal commission type calls for inquiries when we don’t get the results that we anticipated. As we’ve seen in Rio with the wrath that’s descended on the poor swimming team who haven’t brought home enough gold for the liking of the Australian media.
We’re going to be talking about sport and identity and what sport means tonight. Let me introduce our guests in a little more detail than Mat did. We have on my immediate left Sally Shipard. Sally is a retired international soccer midfielder and one of the most recognisable faces in Australian women’s soccer. At 16, Sally made her international and Olympic debut. Her career with the Matildas included playing at the 2007 and 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cups. Sally has worked as a feature writer for Football Federation of Australia and as a commentator for Fox Sports and the ABC.
Next to Sally we have John Harms: writer, historian, publisher and broadcaster. His 2016 publications alone include the books Life As I Know It with jockey Michelle Payne, and Play On, the re-release of his omnibus of books on cricket, horseracing and football. He is founder and editor of the sportswriting website ‘The Footy Almanac’ and John appears regularly on ABC TV’s Offsiders.
Next to John is Louise Burrows, veteran Australian rugby union Wallaroo. A physical education teacher by training, Louise has played for the Canberra Royals Rugby Union Club since she was 17 and made her international debut with the Wallaroos in 2001. She is a hooker and she lined up for her third – actually that sounds rather terrible – who wrote that? Anyway she lined up for her third Women’s Rugby World Cup back in 2014 and she’s still going. Well done Louise.
Next to Louise we have Christian Sprenger who is an Olympic silver medallist, former world champion breaststroker, world record holder, silver medallist in the Olympics. He won his world championship gold medal in 2013, his silver in the 100m breaststroke at the 2012 London Olympics. He has just recently retired from competitive swimming due to the effects of a shoulder injury. I am not surprised at all that the shoulders are a bit sore after 20-plus years of swimming.
Then at the end of our panel is Dr Chris Sarra. Chris has a masters of education, a PhD in psychology and was the first Aboriginal principal of Cherbourg State School. He’s a member of the Australian Rugby League Commission and a rugby league tragic. He’s also founder of the Stronger Smarter Institute. Please make our terrific panel welcome. [applause]
John, I will come to you first of all. We have prime ministers who are obsessed with sport. Australians of the Year are frequently sporting figures. We have a horse race that stops the nation. Where do you think Australia’s deep affinity with sports spring from?
JOHN HARMS: Well, I think it’s something that is not unique to Australia; it’s something that human beings have done across time. It’s quite simply: you’re born, you die, hopefully you get three score years and 10 – maybe a bit more. It’s a long time; it’s easy to get bored. Sport is something to do. It is quite simply something to do. Whether it’s chasing a ball or fighting someone else for a ball or running as fast as you can or leaping, or whatever it is. What happens when you start doing those sorts of things is that they take on ritual meaning. Your community might start to get involved in it.
Then if you are from a generation further down the track, you are born into this and you start to see, ‘Hey, this is what my community does, what’s in it? Why is playing soccer so fascinating? What is it about swimming that we love? What is it about rugby league? If you look at sport in this continent before white settlement, you look at the hundreds – Ken Edwards’ book discloses so many games Indigenous communities had, and equally in other parts of the world that was happening. When white settlement occurred, the British brought their games to this continent. Then we start to see the fact that these become organised not just as games but as sports. So you get the rise of clubs, you get the rise of leagues and suddenly you have this institution of sport that people are so interested in and find importantly, in my view, so much meaning in.
PAUL BARCLAY: Sport is a genuine part of the community, it genuinely rises up from the grassroots of our community?
JOHN HARMS: Take the example: I have just been at Kapunda, which is north of Adelaide near the Barossa Valley, for the 150th anniversary of their footy club. Now that just started as some guys from the copper mine there playing footy. Something to do. It was a very male community. But then they started to play for Kapunda and eventually they played against Tanunda and against Gawler, so it became something that was important to the community of Kapunda to measure yourself against someone else. Competition is very much part of sport, and there is something about giving of yourself to a common cause.
PAUL BARCLAY: There’s that, but then there’s the meaning that sport takes on in a country like Australia, which is arguably greater than other countries. How do we explain that?
JOHN HARMS: So then the next level is to say, ‘I am good enough to play for Kapunda, now I will play for the Barossa Valley, now I will go down and play in Adelaide at Norwood or somewhere and now I will play for South Australia.’ So there is that sense of representation and that sense of well – say in the case of cricket – eventually you play for Australia. Then we project and say, ‘How do we measure up against the English?’ ‘Well, we beat them in the first Ashes Test in 1877 by 45 runs at the MCG.’ You get the sense that it takes on meanings beyond just the simple sporting meanings, because there you put it in a colonial context – mother country and colony – and you have a whole different sense of meanings which aren’t just about hitting a cricket ball, they’re actually political, social and cultural.
PAUL BARCLAY: Something like that, an early win against the colonial masters must, you think, be the roots of sport meaning something more than just the competition, just the game.
JOHN HARMS: You could take any incident and apply a particular lens to it. You could apply the lens of nationalist understandings to it. You could look at rowers or you could look at footballers. Look at what we call it – Australian football. How does that contribute to a sense of identity? How is that complicated by the fact that north of the Barassi line it’s a whole different set of understanding. A point I would like to make is that sport is not a simple thing to understand and analyse. It’s a very complicated thing; hence it’s good to spend time talking about it.
PAUL BARCLAY: It is indeed. We have three elite sportspeople on the panel so it’s a great pleasure to be able to talk to them on how each of you got involved in sport. Christian, were you a sports-mad kid at school competing in a variety of sports and following a variety of sports?
CHRISTIAN SPRENGER: I did. I guess like any kid growing up, I tried pretty much anything. I tried cricket; I was no good. I tried rugby league; I was even worse. I was actually not too bad at soccer, I guess, so that was good. But ultimately for me swimming was something that purely I got into because my siblings swum. That was the only reason why I started that sport. It was because my family was doing it.
But for me it was never about focusing all my energy on that. I loved the team sports. I loved the idea of being involved with the soccer team and winning with them. But I also loved the idea of training individually and performing individually as well. I was emotionally invested at a young age in sport because, when our school had a victory, it felt like a victory to me as well regardless of what sport it was. That’s where I guess my love of sport all started. It didn’t matter what team it was, if they had a win on the weekend we would all talk about it the Monday after. It was something the school got a lot of and I got a lot out of that. That was how I perceived it – a way to be a supporter and also an athlete was to be involved in sport. No matter what happened we took everything, the highs and the lows, and I guess that’s what attracts us to do. It is always different.
PAUL BARCLAY: Sport, was it everything to you at school?
CHRISTIAN SPRENGER: It was a large percentage. I guess I was more the athlete kind of school student. I wasn’t in the library during the lunch time, I was probably more active playing handball. That’s where you’d probably find me so I guess yes, in that sense, I was very much in line with activity.
PAUL BARCLAY: We should say you started swimming when you were seven. You won a silver medal when you were 27. Twenty years of swimming that goes to getting that almost ultimate accolade. I should say in parenthesis that Christian really should have won the gold medal in that event because the person who beat you used an illegal kick to do so, I’m told, the illegal dolphin kick. I don’t know whether that’s a sore point for you.
CHRISTIAN SPRENGER: No, no, not at all. It did effectively take 20 years if you look at it like that. To that moment swimming in that final, he was the favourite in Lane 4. He was always probably going to be won. I was just happy to be in the final, to be honest, if I am going to be brutal. I didn’t think I was going to get a medal. I executed the race how I wanted to do. Yes, we did later find out that he had added – you’re allowed one fly kick with breaststroke off the pull out and he did three. The reason he wasn’t caught is because the officials couldn’t see through the whitewash and ultimately they didn’t see the disqualification. It wasn’t I think until that night the video footage started coming out on YouTube and everyone could see it and he started getting hit for it. With swimming there is no video footage allowed to make a dispute or anything. They don’t accept any video footage under water. That was always going to stick.
Once it started to get a bit heavy, the media came back to me a couple of days later when it started to become a bit of a story of the Olympics how I was robbed. But ultimately I said from day one until when I was asked about it two years ago – it took a while to blow over. They said, ‘You should get the gold. You should be so furious. You’ve just been robbed of this medal.’ I said, ‘Look, ultimately that butterfly kick might have been worth maybe 0.1 of a second. He beat me by 0.4. He was the better athlete on the night.’ People gauge that and they say, ‘You know, I have so much respect for that guy for saying that he would’ve lost anyway. Oh my God, Christian, that’s a really good way of looking at it. ‘But the reality was I look at the facts. I know that that guy was better than me on the night.’
PAUL BARCLAY: And a silver medal is a pretty bloody fantastic thing at an Olympic Games.
CHRISTIAN SPRENGER: Absolutely nothing to shy away from. [applause]
PAUL BARCLAY: Louise and Sally, you both grew up in country towns. Sally, in your case, Wagga, a pretty big country town; and Holbrook for Louise, which I think you told me Holbrook and I had to go and Google it actually. Do you think that growing up in a country town does make you more sporty? I mean, Wagga, for goodness sake, so many sporting greats have come through Wagga, Sally.
SALLY SHIPARD: Hands down playing sport in Wagga is something that all kids do. From about the age of five I’m sure that my brothers played a massive influence in terms of the decisions that I made around what sports I played. It’s a huge part of your identity as a kid growing up in a country town. As Christian has alluded to, it’s what your school does, it’s a community. You are already a part of this thing where you still figuring out who you are, and sport is a huge part of that experience. For me, my brothers all played sports or out in the backyard. When we weren’t at school we were out during lunch times. It was just a part of the fabric and I think completely advantageous growing up in a country town in terms of how I value sport and how it’s driven me through life.
PAUL BARCLAY: The same, Louise, for you – you were involved in sport from a young age?
LOUISE BURROWS: Yes, I had access to a number of different sports. I did equestrian as well. Living in the country, the horses were pretty much in your backyard. You were able to go for a ride before or after school. I actually used to want to go to the Olympics for equestrian. It turns out I’m a rugby union player. I always looked up to different role models. Andrew Hoy was from Culcairn and I think he went to five Olympic games. I used to look up to him as a role model and base my riding around him.
For me though I did all sports – I played basketball in my Mum’s team with my sisters. We were in the B grade. There was no girls competition because it was a country town. We had access that perhaps in the city we may not have been able to afford to participate in sport. For me, I’ve loved sport. At school we would always enter a soccer team or a softball team in a carnival and I think I was always the first one to put my hand up: ‘Yes, I’m coming. I’ll be part of that team. I don’t know how to play but I’m coming to play.’
Having access to sport at school really helped for me to have an opportunity to play a range of sports and actually probably those sports, although I didn’t start playing rugby until I was 16, helped to develop a range of skills physically and also working within a team. And perhaps not being very good, because you were playing sports that you didn’t traditionally play as your sport, coming into rugby and having no idea what I was doing it was a steep learning curve but I think we were used to that at school.
JOHN HARMS: A key thing too is we haven’t had an elitist culture. Sport is not elite sport. Sport is across the whole community. Elite sport is just part of it. If you look at how sport is experienced in this country, really it is hacks like me who continue to do it because you love it, it’s fun, it’s active and it means something. We will keep doing it until it doesn’t mean something. So in that sense, if you take the Adelaide uni footy club, their sixths. They have sixths, they’re called the chardonnay socials. If you are in the sevenths, they are the scum and they are happy to be the scum. They are playing, and I think that’s something that has been celebrated in Australian sporting culture that you can all have a crack.
PAUL BARCLAY: Chris, you played sport when you were a kid? Was it an important part of growing up?
Dr CHRIS SARRA: Yes, I grew up in Bundaberg in the 1970s, the youngest of 10 kids. There was our house and an empty kind of allotment next door which we used to call the ‘SCG’ – Sarra’s Cricket Ground. It was rugby league and cricket usually but we would have a crack at other sports. We used to have two cows that shared that paddock with us. One was Mavis and the other one was Josephine – all good milkers. We’d come home from school and you’d be down there playing against each other and sometimes it would be one on one. There’s a fine kind of line between glorious and inglorious when you are racing down the sideline to score and you slip over in cow dung. Yeah, we grew up playing lots of sport. I never played in the elite space because I guess in my 18, 19 and 20 years I made the decision to focus on my career as an educator.
Today I sit on the Rugby League Commission with Wayne Pearce. Our joke is that between us we have 19 tests – I have zero – but that’s OK. We both started our rugby league career playing for the ‘Tigers’. He was the Balmain Tigers; I was the Wanderers Tigers in Bundaberg.
PAUL BARCLAY: There’s a great grassroots tradition, isn’t there, of sport for Indigenous Australians and in Indigenous communities. I lived in the Northern Territory for a while and I was lucky enough to go along to the Yuendumu sports weekend and watch the bush football. But of course up in the Top End there is the Tiwi Islands where sport is played but equally so in North Queensland. It’s very important.
Dr CHRIS SARRA: Absolutely. Growing up in Bundaberg in the 1970s, Joh Bjelke-Petersen was the premier back there. It was a time when it was okay for people to be racist but, when you’re on the sporting field, the playing field is level. If you want to call someone ‘a black boong’ or ‘a black nigger’ or something like that, you’d want to be good because there’s nowhere to hide on the field. So it was a great leveller. But more than that, it was the one place in Australian society where we as blackfellas could be superb and we were acknowledged and embraced for the excellence we brought. We really came in from the margins on the sporting field and people celebrated that. You hear all sorts of great stories of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians who have a great bond because they’ve played rugby league together.
PAUL BARCLAY: It’s a great paradox, isn’t it? As you say, it’s an arena of acceptance for Indigenous people going right back to the days when racist attitudes were even more common than they are today – people like Lionel Rose and Evonne Goolagong, and in more recent times people like Cathy Freeman and Jonathan Thurston and Adam Goodes. We got to see what poor old Adam Goodes had to suffer through last year. There is this kind of paradox between the fact that we look up to these people as sporting heroes, yet it doesn’t necessarily reflect in their attitudes towards their race.
Dr CHRIS SARRA: Yes, it is why I think – I am biased, of course – rugby league is a great analogy. Last year’s grand final in particular is an exceptional analogy for what we could be as an Australian society: a level playing field, two Indigenous captains, a whole bunch of Indigenous players who are acknowledged and embraced because they are exceptional. That is what they bring and that is celebrated. And off the field we as blackfellas, we know that it’s no different off the field. But for some reason on the rugby league field – and other sporting fields if I am less biased – that is the case. We can be brilliant and we are.
PAUL BARCLAY: It was such a powerful symbolic game, wasn’t it, the Broncos versus the Cowboys in last year’s NRL grand final. It was a great game of football.
Dr CHRIS SARRA: I get emotional –
PAUL BARCLAY: So do I.
JOHN HARMS: In my Melbourne study on my own because the kids – what are the gods doing to Johnathan Thurston? They are toying with this guy. Now they’re going to give him a kick for goal –
Dr CHRIS SARRA: I am sitting two seats in front of the Prime Minister and I’m going off my head. Then when we win it, Marise Payne grabs me and I started to cry.
JOHN HARMS: That ball is going to curve through – oh no, it’s not, it’s going to defy physics here. And then of course he kicks the goal. I also grew up in Queensland in the 1970s. There were segregations in the community whether they be on the basis of race or on the basis of socioeconomic status and so on. But in rugby league that’s where I met Indigenous people. I met Cec Docherty, I met Dicky Rose, I met the Weatherall brothers. We met each other as people. We have ended up playing golf –
Dr CHRIS SARRA: On the field you connect with humanity of each other because, again, when you are in a team there is nowhere to hide so you have to be there for each other. If you have some kind of racist attitude or negative sense about your team mate, you can’t be as strong as you want to be. And in the end the scoreboard is going to reflect that you are not as united as you should be. You kind of have to be united if you want to enjoy the spoils of the game.
PAUL BARCLAY: Sally, Chris and John are talking there about the emotions of sport that we feel as spectators essentially watching the teams and the individuals that we are so invested in and we feel this emotional surge. One of the most devastating and excruciating experiences of the Olympics so far was watching the Matildas go down. In 120 minutes of football not a goal scored and the dreaded penalty shoot-out. You know goal, goal, goal, goal, and finally the Brazilian misses the goal and the Matildas – who was it?
SALLY SHIPARD: Alanna Kennedy –
PAUL BARCLAY: has the kick to win the match. I’ve seen Lionel Messi miss penalties, I’ve seen Cristiano Ronaldo miss penalties. When she missed and then, of course, we ended up losing the match, the emotional toll it takes on the spectator is enough, but what about for those on the field? How do emotions play out on the field?
SALLY SHIPARD: You certainly cannot train for situations such as what the girls were faced with over the weekend. I was exhausted watching that. Having retired two years ago I’ve arrived at this space now where I can watch from the perspective of a fan. I can now relate to the way that you would feel in watching a display of a wonderful sporting match. Everyone is very quick to say poor Alanna Kennedy, that final kicker, in terms of attention and the pressure on her shoulders. Then it is the Katrina Gorry that missed after the world’s best player Marta missed her penalty. It’s so touch and go. You can talk about this in terms of any pursuit. When you’re at that level, it’s the experience itself that gives you that. No training can get you ready for that type of pressure.
PAUL BARCLAY: It’s human fallibility that’s part of the great narrative of sport. Like Cate Campbell – and so much has been written about Cate and Bronte Campbell, much of it unfair I think, Christian. The fact that there is this expectation that our sporting heroes in some ways are seen as robots that are just meant to get in the pool. But the expectation and the pressure must just do your head in.
CHRISTIAN SPRENGER: Sometimes the coach thinks we’re robots too, to be honest. No, it is. If you look at someone like Cate Campbell, her record and her history would tell you she is a very consistent swimmer. She’s able to perform. She’s won world championships. She was very ready for this Olympics. She was in the best possible form. I trained with the girls for about four or five years so I knew exactly what she was capable of. The one thing that she had never planned for – or anyone can ever plan for – is what it actually feels like to be in an Olympic final as number one. I went into London as number four in the final. We’ve seen guys go into number two and get up. It’s going in as number one – I’ve never experienced it and I probably will never – I will never experience it. It’s the hardest thing.
PAUL BARCLAY: But you did break a world record, didn’t you?
CHRISTIAN SPRENGER: Yes.
PAUL BARCLAY: And then after breaking that world record you felt the weight of that expectation, didn’t you?
CHRISTIAN SPRENGER: Yes, that’s a touch of it. In the semifinal of the world championships I broke the world record in the 200m and went into the final as number one. Now that whole day I felt physically ill, sick to the stomach, so nervous and this was just the world championships. They happen once every two years, so big deal, but Olympics are once every four years. The eyes on you around the TV, ten times the pressure, everything is multiplied. So for her, she’s spoken in an interview that her heat felt great, her head was in the right space; semi felt great, again head still in the right space, very calm and collected.
She actually said it happened around two hours after that semi-final swim when she came to the realisation that she was about the Olympic final, something she’d been waiting for for about eight years. As soon as she thought that, things started to basically snowball and tumble for her. The second your mind starts to even doubt for one second that you haven’t got the ability or you haven’t got the experience, you’re done, unfortunately. For Cate, we’ve seen this consistent swimmer. She’s gone 52 seconds for 100m freestyle. I haven’t seen her go 53 seconds in years. And all of a sudden she lines up for the final and doesn’t get the best start, panics, goes out too hard, and swims 53. And unfortunately for her it’s over in a minute, and that was it. She’s got to wait four years again. That’s what Olympics is, unfortunately. That’s pressure.
PAUL BARCLAY: That’s pressure. Louise, I want to talk about the fact that both you and Sally compete in sports that have traditionally been seen as male sports. And in your sport, or a subsection of your sport, the rugby sevens pulled off a gold medal – fantastic effort by the women rugby sevens, totally awesome. [applause]
Obviously the effect of that will be that women’s rugby generally, one would expect, will get a lot more attention and hopefully get more people competing in it. Just give us an insight into how hard it is to get noticed as a female athlete playing a sport that’s traditionally been seen as a male sport and perhaps some of the attitudes that you come up against being a female rugby player.
LOUISE BURROWS: I still have people after – how many years now? – 22 years of playing and I say, ‘I play rugby union,’ and they say, ‘Is it touch?’ I am like ‘No, I didn’t say touch football, I play rugby union. We tackle.’ I still in 2016 get people asking if it’s touch rugby. I think there are still people out there that don’t believe women should be playing rugby, shouldn’t be tackling.
PAUL BARCLAY: The physicality of the game is confronting for people who think that women shouldn’t be playing that type of game perhaps –
LOUISE BURROWS: I think if they actually watched a game of women’s rugby, we’re not playing men, we are playing other women or girls are playing other girls. We’re not playing against the boys or the men. It’s an even competition, I guess, in the physicality. We’re all prepared very similarly for a game. I guess the main reason most females play rugby is because we enjoy the physicality. We love that we get to tackle people, and it’s part of the game to smash somebody as hard as you can. Fabulous. You can’t walk down the street and tackle somebody.
PAUL BARCLAY: There was that great tackle, wasn’t there, in the rugby sevens at the Olympics?
LOUISE BURROWS: I know, I got early to watch that. I was watching the game and was like: this is so challenging to watch. Then Charlotte Caslick just came across from one side of the field and she made that tackle a really dominant tackle and took the US player out.
PAUL BARCLAY: It was a try saving tackle.
LOUISE BURROWS: It was. She sort of stood up and flicked her plait, she kind of broadened her shoulders and she looked like a strong, athletic, beautiful woman. For me I thought young girls are going to be watching this going: ‘She’s my favourite rugby player.’ She ticks all the boxes. I love that she’s strong and fast and made that tackle but got up as if to say ‘Well that was easy.’
PAUL BARCLAY: You need to Google it if you haven’t seen it. It’s terrific. Things are a bit more advanced for the Matildas. You’ve had a profile for quite a bit longer than the female rugby players. But is there still a struggle for recognition? Soccer is the world game and the male stars are among the biggest stars in sport in the world. How much are women getting recognised for their participation in the sport, and the Matildas in particular?
SALLY SHIPARD: We all may be privy to the most recent little debate over the contractual stuff for the Matildas with the FFA [Football Federation Australia] –
PAUL BARCLAY: Money.
SALLY SHIPARD: Yes. I really try and see it in a positive way, Paul, in that the potential for women’s sport in this country is huge. The influence that women’s sport can have on the likes of young girls in the way of inspiring others is untapped. There is certainly something more that we can do with women’s sport. Specifically with football, the girls are getting results. We’re ranked fifth in the world now, which is the highest we have ever been ranked. Dating back to 2004 when I made my debut, we hadn’t won an international match at a major tournament. Now we have expectations on our shoulders in the way that we’re going to perhaps be medalling –
PAUL BARCLAY: So there’s a new pressure on the Matildas now as a result of that?
SALLY SHIPARD: Absolutely. There is progress in terms of our performance. When we perform, that then means that we can go to the FFA with something quite tangible. It’s almost like what happens first: the chicken or the egg? We need the funding. Women’s football needs the funding in order to get better. But what comes first? It’s a tricky battle. Women’s sport has never raised the revenue that men’s sport has. That’s what the FFA will often come back to us with. It makes sense but it’s also a pretty exciting time considering the girls are getting the results. We are always tending to be one step ahead of the men’s national team in terms of what we are able to win. The entire FFA office was pretty excited about the lead-up to the Olympics and obviously the girls had that essential focus considering the young Socceroos hadn’t qualified.
Dr CHRIS SARRA: In rugby league it’s been interesting to watch women get on a decent stage these days. What Sally was talking about is very real, that notion that the more eyes that get on the game and the more professionally the women are treated, the more skilful they become. When you watch Australian women play New Zealand women in rugby league or Queensland versus New South Wales, it’s fantastic to watch. The skill is superb. As the women understand that, so we as a commission and we as a game are taking it more seriously, more women and more girls are aspiring to play the game because they can see it. Extraordinary feats such as we talk about Queensland winning ten out of the last 11 series, but Queensland women have won 16 years in a row. But they’ve been playing on some paddock as a curtain raiser to a second tier thing; whereas now they’re on the main stage and they will play the curtain raiser to a test match, as they should have been all along. It’s great to watch.
PAUL BARCLAY: John, with the AFL, finally they’ve set up a women’s competition.
JOHN HARMS: Isn’t it interesting, Paul, how the AFL have made a spiel as if they invented women’s football about six months ago. What we’re going to now see is that these mainstream media outlets are going to go: ‘Hang on, there is some great stories here, let’s see how long women’s football has been going. Oh, back to the 1920s, look at this character, look at this woman, look at these people.’ That’s another big advantage of what’s going to happen. There’s the sense that there’s this history and this tradition that the AFL is now developing. To take credit for the invention of it is ridiculous. But I must say in terms of the administration of it, to put the season for ten weeks before the blokes season is an interesting move with the grand final being in round one. I think it will give that sort of focus you’re talking about, Chris. That could work really positively.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes. I bet you wish you were still playing for the Matildas, number five in the world and all that increased profile. Do you wish that you were still going around or is the body –
Dr CHRIS SARRA: She’s going to make a comeback in rugby union.
SALLY SHIPARD: I retired due to my knee health. I absolutely would love to still be playing but I’ve also moved on from that and can accept that not all bodies are meant to be elite athletes.
LOUISE BURROWS: I am so excited that I’m still playing.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes, exactly. You’re unbreakable.
LOUISE BURROWS: With the success of the sevens, for me, I used to wish and hope that women’s rugby would be in the spotlight but I never thought it would be while I was still playing. I am really riding the wave. I remember after the girls won the gold medal, I was driving to work and every now and then I would stop and listen to a word in a song or something and just start bawling my eyes out. It wasn’t just about them winning gold it was what it will do for my sport or for other women’s sport like the league.
Dr CHRIS SARRA: She’s going to make the transition to rugby league as well. They all come over.
LOUISE BURROWS: It’s a wonderful thing. For the Wallaroos, a bit later this year we’re playing a double header at Eden Park with the Wallabies and All Blacks.
PAUL BARCLAY: That’s immense, isn’t it?
LOUISE BURROWS: That’s huge for us. I want to be there and experience that.
PAUL BARCLAY: I bet.
LOUISE BURROWS: I think it will be great because people will have exposure to it and realise that women can play rugby.
JOHN HARMS: A word of caution is worthwhile as well. Even though the trickle-down theory of sport has some merit, I don’t think it’s a cure all; I don’t think it automatically happens. I like the model which is a pyramid from the base where we give so much opportunity to schools and clubs and so on so that we create a love of the game amongst as many as possible who take it up. And out of that talent is revealed, not by saying, ‘Here is an athletic looking individual, what sport is she suited to? She could be a gymnast; she could be a rugby player or whatever.’ The love of the game emerges and the representation at the top level is just a natural elevation of the talent.
That model is not the model that we have in place at the moment. We have in Australia a top-down model. One of the antipathies for the Olympic Games at the moment – if you are in pubs, you’re hearing people talking about it, is because people feel it’s top heavy. That is, so much funding is going in at the elite level, rather than we’re making a lot of lamingtons and selling a lot of raffle tickets, we’ve got kids who love the game.
PAUL BARCLAY: Part of the discussion tonight is about sport being more than just sport, standing for something more than just competition. Christian, what of course that means is that athletes and competitors become more than just athletes and competitors, they become role models for the kids who look up to them increasingly on the TV set. There’s a whole new raft of stars that have been born in Rio, some young swimmers who are going to become household names when they get home and there’s going to be pressure on them. We’ve seen how difficult that has been for some swimmers. Grant Hackett, for example, has had his difficulties. Is it fair enough, do you think, that people are seen as role models and is this too much of a burden for many young athletes to take?
CHRISTIAN SPRENGER: It’s a tricky question. When we talk about role models and young kids looking up to the different sports, I think every sport has different ways in how they need to be perceived too. For swimmers where it’s a very healthy, clean, streamlined sport, we get very heavily criticised when even the smallest thing happens; we’re caught doing the tiniest or insignificant things. Whereas the team sports may be treated differently in that idea that it gets spread amongst that team in terms of, if something goes wrong, it’s diffused a bit easier. But if it’s one individual athlete, it reflects on them but then ultimately the whole sport – all of swimming – gets dragged through the mud. Whereas if it happens to a team, it’s confined.
Coming into this Olympics we obviously had a lot of kids looking up to your number ones: your Campbells, Cate and Bronte, Cam McEvoy, Mitch Larkin and Emily Seebohm. What kids need to see and what younger athletes need to see is that, although they didn’t get the results they wanted, when you watch them on the interview in how they composed themselves, it was quite good. Inside I know exactly how hard it is and how they’re feeling.
PAUL BARCLAY: I think their performances in the face of those post-match interviews is incredible.
CHRISTIAN SPRENGER: I’ve heard firsthand that after these interviews things have been very hard for them. I can tell you that firsthand. They had an obligation. You get a camera thrown in your face. They know that’s all part of the territory. You do the interviews and it’s all part of the process. They give you as much as they can. They try to uphold the values of a good athlete – and they do that – but they have to vent as well. Whether emotionally that’s this or that, they do keep that in a good spot. I think this Olympics was a great eye opener for when things do go wrong. Although there’s a lot of criticism about the funding with the swimming, we can safely say that these athletes have done literally everything they can to be proud Australians and that’s ultimately what we want out of the sport.
SALLY SHIPARD: In terms of pressure, just as human being I was shocked for Anna Meares to apologise to us as a nation. What kind of expectation do we have on these athletes? They’ve only got a heartbeat at the end of the day. I struggle to fathom sometimes how I was an elect athlete because I feel like I’ve lost my competitiveness a little bit. They’re doing extraordinary things. We’re talking milliseconds for these races that they’re losing by, and for poor Anna to feel like she has to apologise.
PAUL BARCLAY: It’s an indication of the pressure that they feel though, isn’t it, from the Australian public. I think also Cate Campbell referred to – ‘the biggest choke in Australian history’ was the quote she used to describe her own swim. So they’re feeling this pressure clearly from the public.
JOHN HARMS: I’m interested in the origins of that because I’m not sure it is entirely just public. I think it’s more than that; I think it’s systemic. If the career of a coach and if the career of an administrator is dependent on the performance of someone they have no control over, then I really want you to win a gold medal but I’m going to tell you just to do your best – that’s a simplified response. It’s a complicated milieu that needs to be unravelled. For someone getting out and saying ‘My self-worth is not dependent on my performance in the pool’, to analyse that statement is a complicated task. ‘Hang on, you’ve been a swimmer for 20 years, you really believed in the sport you are in and you’re disappointed in your results. What is the impact on you?’ I was with Charlene Rendina on Monday night and she was very evidently, very clearly someone who believed in giving your best is all you can do. I had no reason to doubt her. She still holds the 800m women’s track record. Everything she said spoke to that philosophy – everything. She’s a mature contemplative woman now. Whereas I feel I’m getting from mixed messages from athletes who are younger in trying to understand the position –
PAUL BARCLAY: Because athletes are intensely competitive people who want to win, clearly, and how do you balance that fierce desire to want to win, single-minded desire to want to win, with the fact that sometimes you can’t?
LOUISE BURROWS: They’re physically well prepared but maybe not mentally or emotionally, or they put those pressures onto themselves that really aren’t necessary. They might be thinking they’re well prepared but really there is something –
JOHN HARMS: All I’m saying is I think it’s complicated.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes.
CHRISTIAN SPRENGER: Just on that, in swimming if we go back to 2000 we had Thorpe, Hackett and all those guys. We had ten or so medals at the Olympics in swimming alone; in 2004 the same sort of thing, with Hackett, Thorpe – we had those names still. Now I felt the sense that the swim team in 2008 and 2012, it was almost like we needed to replicate what was done because that’s what’s expected by the public. That is where it came to.
You have these young swimmers who are automatically going to the Olympics saying, ‘We’ve done this in the past, we have to do this again or there’s trouble,’ because we’ve had such success in the past. If we go back to the 4 x 100m men in Sydney where they beat the American team, that was game changing, and in the 2001 world championships Australia actually beat America in the medal tally. That just never happens. So we’ve built this profile which is why swimming is so big at the moment. But unfortunately it’s hard to deliver when the world has caught up. Everyone is in the same boat now and is getting stronger and stronger.
PAUL BARCLAY: Historically though swimming has been very much part of our culture. I was thinking about Dawn Fraser’s win in three consecutive Olympic games, gold medals in three games. Quite possibly could have made it four. How poor old Dawn would cope under the media pleasure of today given the type of person she was.
JOHN HARMS: I take comfort in the fact that these are the discussions that were being had in the tavernas of ancient Olympia in 400BC. I’m not kidding here. This is what we call the ‘agon’ of the athlete. It’s a test against themselves and a test against their opponent from which we get the word ‘agony’. It’s not just we’ll see how we go, no, your whole sense of self is caught up in it. It’s been written about for centuries.
PAUL BARCLAY: I’m also interested in how sport can play a role in social change and social issues generally. Chris, you’re best known in Australia, I think, as an Aboriginal educator and somebody who has been lifting the bar of expectations for Aboriginal kids trying to get them to focus more on reading, schooling and on. Can sport play a role in helping to get kids more involved in education, schooling and so on?
Dr CHRIS SARRA: Yes, absolutely. We saw the perfect example of Jonathan Thurston sending a shout out to kids in Aurukun because he knew they were struggling to get themselves to school. These guys take that sense of being role models very seriously. They know that, when they say something, people are listening. It’s disappointing – to reach back into our earlier conversation – to know that, particularly in rugby league, there’s so much positive stuff happening with young men and women engaging in community development stuff and giving so much of their time. Yet you see one thing that’s controversial and that’s the stuff that will hit the papers. But there is no doubt that the big names in our game can influence change in a positive way whether it’s getting kids to school, getting them to make healthy choices about what they’re eating, staying off smoking, getting plenty of sleep – all those sorts of things. It does have an impact.
PAUL BARCLAY: Sally, you’ve spoken out and used your platform as a sportsperson to speak out about various issues. You’ve spoken out about eating disorders, for example, and your experience about that. Do you think that that does help to promote a conversation in the community about mental health and those types of issues when you come from the sporting arena? Have you consciously used the profile that you’ve got in that area to do that?
SALLY SHIPARD: Yes, I guess in terms of my own struggle with an eating disorder per se, it was more the fact I just wanted to raise awareness of the issue in society. I didn’t want to be ‘I have the answers for you,’ it was just ‘this is my story and I feel like the world is a better place if we share more of our stories.’ As a result of being an athlete in what I would consider a pretty privileged position in terms of reaching a good number of kids, I think it’s a valuable part of who I am.
More recently since retiring, I’ve recognised that I can be an advocate for social issues in causes that are near and dear to me, whether it be LGBT stuff, marriage equality or mental health in sport. Chatting with young kids about the importance – we train our bodies in such a way but you can’t neglect your mind as a result of that. There was a year throughout my span of ten years with the national team – I remember it was this incredible vivid year where my mind had fused with my body and I played the best football that I’ve ever played. But it took me eight or nine years to figure that out.
Dr CHRIS SARRA: Sally, it’s important that you and I guess all of you would have been confronted by demands to be the voice for this or the voice for that. I watch guys like Jonathan Thurston and Cathy Freeman. For us as blackfellas we load so much expectation on them in a way that’s unfair. Cathy runs fast. She’s pretty shy. Jonathan is pretty shy as well, but he’s the best rugby league player in the world. Often that’s enough. Where they can lend their voice to things, that’s great, but we can’t expect them to be everything for the Aboriginal cause or things like that.
PAUL BARCLAY: We project onto them, don’t we? With Cathy Freeman in the 2000 Olympic Games there was a sense that there was more at stake here than winning a race, the 400m foot race, there was a sense of somehow Cathy’s victory symbolising some unfinished business in our history. That’s why we held our breath. We held our breath because we wanted her to win but we also hold our breath because we knew that win stood for something bigger. That is part of this discussion tonight: how sport can rightly or wrongly represent bigger aspirations? I think that at the moment one of the challenges we have as a nation, one of the many challenges, is the issue of racism in the community. John, you’re from Melbourne and you get along to the AFL footy a bit. We saw that deplorable chapter last year of Adam Goodes whenever he got the footy being booed. It was an unsavoury business, wasn’t it?
JOHN HARMS: Talk about tears in your eyes when you’re in that sort of situation. I remember going to Geelong to see Geelong playing Sydney thinking – I’m a Geelong supporter – ‘What’s my community going to do here? How is it going to respond to Adam Goodes?’ The level of connection that people had with both sides of the coin on that is really illustrative. I was really interested in how well he understood it. He said, ‘We’re happy as a community. When certain sections of the community remain silent and do what they’re expected to do, the broader community just says “yes that’s terrific,” but as soon as someone becomes a bit lippy, then they need to be put in their place.’
PAUL BARCLAY: Asserts their culture as he did with the spear-throwing on the footy field.
JOHN HARMS: I thought it was a fantastic moment, but clearly there is a lot who don’t. How do we then understand our own community in relation to that? You can’t be definitive in these matters. But the very fact that I felt a lot of us were affected – and I’m not a blackfella – deeply, emotionally, spiritually is indicative of what it actually means.
PAUL BARCLAY: I was at Victoria Park the day that Nicky Winmar pulled up his shirt and showed the crowd his black skin and he’d been mercilessly booed by the Collingwood supporters all day. It was one of the most shameful things I have ever seen actually. Thankfully it was a bit of a turning point for the AFL because it was at that point they realised they had a serious problem. Although one has to ask how successful they have been at addressing the problem given Adam Goodes last year.
JOHN HARMS: But the AFL cannot be a social changer. It can have a role it. This is a problem with the AFL that it actually runs football. If these things are attended to, yes, these guys are in a position with profile and they can have an impact but they don’t necessarily have a responsibility to have that impact. I would like to think they would choose to take that responsibility, in which case it can be a force for growth. Chris, what do you think?
Dr CHRIS SARRA: John, I might gently disagree because I think as a game we do have a responsibility. I take very seriously, sitting at the commission table, the fact that sport is a good analogy for what society can be. If we allow those circumstances to emerge unchecked, then it’s like that saying: the behaviour you walk past is the behaviour you condone. In our game we would – I have to watch what I say because I don’t want to bring on anything; I don’t know what is going to happen over the next couple of weeks – it’s inconceivable that in rugby league that would’ve happened.
I know that we at the commission do take those circumstances very seriously. There’s some point at which we understand we are a game, and that’s true. But at some other point we do influence how young people think. Our guys and our women on the field are role models for other young people who are growing up becoming a part of the fabric of Australian society, and we take that quite seriously.
JOHN HARMS: I agree. It has to be called out. I have no problem with that.
Dr CHRIS SARRA: I think as a nation we have admit that racism exists and be okay about that. There is nothing more sickening than listening to a politician saying, ‘Oh no, there’s no racism in our society.’ Get over that and let’s accept that it does exist. But when it does emerge, we’re prepared to ensure there are consequences for it, because racism exists in every nation throughout the world, I’m sure.
PAUL BARCLAY: Louise, we love a winner in Australia but we also love to watch people in how they conduct themselves on the sporting field. One of my great moments in Australian sport is the John Landy and Ron Clarke one mile race in 1956. There is a stumble and one man helps the other man up. Interestingly, it had a contemporary reflection just yesterday in the 5000m women’s race heats in Rio, where one woman fell over and another woman stopped and helped her up, and then at the very end of the race there was this beautiful embrace between the two of them. Does sportspersonship still matter or is it being lost to this ‘winner takes all’ attitude that sport is about these days?
LOUISE BURROWS: No, I think sportsmanship is huge on and off the field. For rugby especially, as a very physical contact sport, it’s really important that whatever does happen on the field – because the aim is to tackle people hard, win a set piece at scrum time, dominate your opposition prop and sometimes you may do things that could be frowned upon – but to know that, when you walk off the field. I guess for myself when I go to a national championships or something and I get to play against my fellow teammates in the Wallaroos, occasionally at the bottom of a ruck we say ‘Hi,’ or tap each other on the shoulder and get up and run off. Or we might say ‘great tackle, that hurt’. But after the game we really embrace each other and let each other know that we appreciate that we didn’t hold back and that we put everything in.
PAUL BARCLAY: The same?
SALLY SHIPARD: I’m not going to use a football reference but I will use a netball reference. Did anyone watch that epic contest a couple of weeks ago between the Firebirds and the Swifts? So we would all be privy to Laura Geitz and Sharni Layton in that they are both goalkeepers contesting for that number one spot in the Diamonds. Their embrace at the end of the game – there are images of it – and I’m good mates with both of them, probably more so with Sharni. No offence to Geitzy but Sharni lives in Sydney and we kind of hang out. I thought instantly, ‘Sharni, what is going on in your head? You’ve just lost but you’re embracing this woman.’ This is such an indication of the maturity of the player that she is. Throughout that match Geitz led from the back. Sharni was able to conceive throughout that game but essentially the reason why the Firebirds were able to keep it together was because of that girl, because of her direct competitor at the end of the court. That was what was going through her head during this embrace. It was gorgeous.
JOHN HARMS: Certainly for me a big part of sport is the transcendent, like the Thurston game got into the transcendent where it becomes something more than the mundane, routine fixture. It has meaning because it’s a big game; it has meaning because of the way it’s played; it has meaning because the competition is so magnificent. You just get so taken in by it. It can happen in junior football; it can happen in local tennis. There is something that will take you to another place.
PAUL BARCLAY: Part of that, too, is the psychological component of watching people perform under pressure. Watching Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt performing at these Olympics Games has just been utterly awe inspiring, I think, because of the immense pressure on them. And Bolt especially, that loose way he has of running. For me that’s an aesthetic pleasure actually just watching him run –
JOHN HARMS: That’s another element – sheer beauty.
PAUL BARCLAY: And the way he conducts himself. We’re going to take some questions from the audience but, before I do, and there are so many questions I haven’t had time to go through unfortunately. This is part of the Defining Moments series at the National Museum so we’re kind of pinpointing moments of history. I thought I would give everybody a chance to pinpoint their one moment in sport. It’s a bit unfair asking them only to pick one, but you have one moment in sport. Chris, what is it?
Dr CHRIS SARRA: I know exactly what it is. We talked about the grand final won by the Cowboys and we talked about Cathy Freeman. I could go on about this. I get emotional thinking about it. State of Origin, two minutes 35 seconds, Arthur Beetson smashes his teammate Mick Cronin and everybody knew State of Origin was real. You can imagine that moment where the sperm impregnates the egg …
PAUL BARCLAY: I try to imagine.
Dr CHRIS SARRA: That is the moment that State of Origin was conceived and became the sporting spectacle on the planet. [applause] Forget Super Bowl, the greatest sporting spectacle on the planet probably in the whole universe.
PAUL BARCLAY: That’s a beautiful thing, Chris. Christian, beat that.
CHRISTIAN SPRENGER: I don’t think I can. I think we should all pack up. I did speak about the 4 x 100m men’s back in Sydney 2000. It was an unbelievable race. It’s a swimming memory, obviously. In 2004 in Sydney the Olympic trials were on, and probably a few of you might remember Ian Thorpe falls in in the 400m in the heats and is disqualified out of the race. This guy is the reigning Olympic champion from 2000 and there is just shock across the nation. Noone can believe it can happen. Grant Hackett is on the sideline absolutely gobsmacked. Noone can even believe this has gone on.
The final goes and Craig Stevens gets second spot behind Grant. Then it’s put to him that he steps aside to let Ian Thorpe take that race in Athens. I can imagine what Craig would have been thinking at that point. It’s the individual swim for him. He has to give up for Ian Thorpe. For someone like Thorpe, obviously he wants to be there but the pressure would have been immense. This kid has taken away the spot and slotted in Ian Thorpe in the idea that he’s just going to go and win. But there is so much more to it than that. Leading up to it, it was all about this trade-off. And even going to the competition it was the big 400 freestyle. When Ian Thorpe finished that race – he did win it by half a body length on Grant – it was just like an Ian Thorpe noone had ever seen before. He normally turns around, does his double fist, world record whatever but he just lost it. For me I think that was the moment when I realised this guy is not just Ian Thorpe invincible, he is actually human and he really deserved 100 per cent credit for doing that swim because it would have been one of the hardest swims to do, without a doubt.
PAUL BARCLAY: Louise?
LOUISE BURROWS: Mine is very recent – last Tuesday morning at about 8.30am with the girls winning gold. All year I’ve been saying that the Australian women’s sevens team are going to the Olympics and they’re going to win gold, Australia is going to fall in love with these women and they’ll become household names. Maybe at the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘Gee I hope I’m not just saying that. I really hope this does happen.’ When I was sitting there watching before kickoff I was so excited but I was so nervous as well. Maybe that dream, that hope, it wasn’t going to happen. Then I thought well silver is great. I actually did think that. Well silver is good; they’re in that match. Then towards the end, there wasn’t much longer to go, my son said – I’m almost getting emotional now – ‘Mum, if they win, can I jump up and down on the couch?’ I said, ‘You can do whatever you want.’ Then my daughter and my son, and I were on the floor, we were embracing each other and just jumping up and down with excitement.
For me I just thought not only is this wonderful for women’s rugby, for sevens and for 15s, and for those that have played before us that have left a legacy, these girls now leaving a legacy for the future players, but I just think for women. Any woman watching would see these women as strong, powerful and beautiful. That’s a great message within itself that we don’t need to stereotype people in a certain way but to watch them and win gold and play so well was for me so special.
PAUL BARCLAY: Very special, absolutely. John?
JOHN HARMS: Mine is more of a broad thing but I’m going to go with a quick little one as well. I think the rise of clubs in Australia in the late 19th century is such an elemental part of how we understand sport now. But on the back of this, generations of people being involved in clubs and giving of their time to pursue something that they absolutely love and out of that emerges leagues. I would say the way we have done that on this land mass is really interesting across all cultures. Quickly, I think one of the greatest post-event sports interviews is Michelle Payne’s interview with the jockey Sam Hyland after the race if you ever want the expression of a pure sporting philosophy, and then for her to embrace her brother in the way she did and then to make the statements – I’m getting emotional about it – from the podium was sensational.
PAUL BARCLAY: Absolutely. These are great moments. Sally?
SALLY SHIPARD: I’m not going to be specific as such but my favourite athlete hands down is female athlete with a disability Louise Sauvage. I don’t mean with a disability in order to highlight that, but that woman is incredible. I was privy in meeting her at 16 and we’ve developed this lovely friendship over the last decade. Nine gold models at Paralympics, four silver, Order of Australia medal. She was born with a severe spinal disability, knows no different. Her childhood was no different to any other kid as far as she was concerned. She is the most inspiring, most decorated athlete in my eyes but the most humble, the most endearing and the most precious human being. She would be hands down my favourite. The race that she won in 2000, the demonstration event at the Olympics. The way that she tells the story in the lead-up to that is incredible and in retrospect that would then be my favourite moment, although as a child I didn’t recognise that would be my favourite one. But as an adult I can absolutely look back on that and own that as being my favourite.
PAUL BARCLAY: Fantastic! What a great selection. It’s so hard to pick just one. I’m going to wrap up with some questions from the audience. We have about 15 minutes or so for you to fire away at our great panel.
QUESTION: What a wonderful discussion it was. I have Danish friends and they have asked me a question which I don’t feel I have answered properly. The question is: what is Australia’s national sport and not just from spectator but also from participators, from people? What is our national sport?
PAUL BARCLAY: That’s a question, isn’t it?
Dr CHRIS SARRA: Do you need to ask me?
PAUL BARCLAY: We know what Chris is going to say.
Dr CHRIS SARRA: Greatest game of all.
PAUL BARCLAY: Is it a competition between rugby league and Aussie rules, John?
JOHN HARMS: I think you need a more universal sport.
PAUL BARCLAY: Spoken like a true sporting diplomat.
JOHN HARMS: So probably cricket is more likely to be one. I think we will see the rise of the world game. That’s just going to happen. I don’t make any value judgment on that. If that happens, it happens. They are all great games and they have meanings for people. I would go with cricket.
QUESTION: That’s only a summer game.
LOUISE BURROWS: She doesn’t like your answer.
JOHN HARMS: Not in Queensland.
Dr CHRIS SARRA: It is interesting and I don’t want to seem too biased although I think you have me pegged already. It’s why the NRL reached out to embrace touch football as a gateway game into rugby league, so it’s pretty broad …
PAUL BARCLAY: I always think of swimming and surfing as being very macho Australian sports.
Dr CHRIS SARRA: Going to the beach – beach cricket maybe.
QUESTION: Thanks very much for coming down, guys, I found the conversation very enlightening. Christian, I said I was going to go easy on you, mate, so interpret that how you will. I am curious as to what you and the panel think should be the metric for success given that a lot of our Olympic sports are very reliant on public funding. Should we still be as focused as we are on achieving gold medals and podium success or is it enough for us to take a values-based approach? Is it good enough that we are there, as you said before, the swimming team probably gets a gold medal for the class act in the way they have responded to some of those disappointments. Is that enough in itself?
CHRISTIAN SPRENGER: I guess I will be starting that one.
PAUL BARCLAY: That’s an excellent question.
JOHN HARMS: It’s a great question.
CHRISTIAN SPRENGER: It is relevant obviously with what’s going on. There is always going to be attention based around that. I guess typically your average idealistic person would be putting money to something where you see a return. We always argue that is the ultimate result. For us, Olympics, gold medals – that’s the easiest formula that we try to put together. The question is obviously as you put forward, your challenge with does performance come before funding and what is the actual metric? It’s really tough.
For me personally I don’t think there is a perfect answer. Every sport is going to be different. Everyone and every operation is going to have different ways of answering that question. How we perceive things and I guess in the media – what was it? – around $40 million for swimming let’s say over the last four years of funding. There was an amazing article that I read this morning. It was a Gold Coast physiotherapist who had a bit of a document standing up for the swimmers basically. It talks about that taxpayers spend around about $40 million for four years so we want to see results. But then it goes on to say of that we also spend a lot of money in other areas. The athletes – were they worth it? We saw great sportsmanship, all these things, okay, we didn’t get the medals we wanted. But there is around $8 billion spent in hospital care for other areas such as things like obesity. Is spending that measly $40 million helping inspire the next generation to get into sport and hopefully ultimately get to that place and limit that obesity rate? There are things like that. Can we deflect the situation in that way and think of it more as a positive spend? It is very hard to justify it when the sole purpose of something is to put money in to get gold medals. You can’t really measure it like that, I don’t think.
PAUL BARCLAY: They really pumped up the expectations, John, didn’t they before these Olympics Games? The people who run these sports were actually the very people who were predicting Australia was going to finish in the top five on the medal count, X number of medals from the pool and so on. In fairness, this is not something that the media is beating up, this is a standard that the sports themselves –
JOHN HARMS: Really?
PAUL BARCLAY: The media is in part beating up, but the sports themselves did set that standard.
JOHN HARMS: Yes, but I think the media embellishes it. It goes with it. You have to remember that the people who love sport are going to be watching TV, reading the paper, listening to the radio. Their eyeballs are already fixed. In terms of marketing, which we have to bring into this, they are safe. It’s new eyeballs that the marketers are looking for. It’s the ones who don’t usually turn the swimming on or the rugby league on or whatever that the marketers are trying to get to. How do you do that? You make it like a school swimming carnival: ‘Ra, ra, ra Australia, here’s person A, person B. She’s going to win. Let’s watch. Cate Campbell is going to win.’ So you have a narrative. Oh she’s won the first one so all the eyeballs are there. With Steve Renouf the Courier-Mail were brilliant at it. I wrote a book about Steve, a great rugby league player from Murgon. He was manipulated to a degree by News Limited in the sense that he was going to be on the front page as a footballer but then they worked out, hang on, there is a whole middle class audience and a whole female audience that can be attracted by turning this guy into a lovable character. So here he is with his wife Lis, school girl sweetheart, and here they are getting engaged and here they are getting married and here they are having their first child. So is it about rugby league or is it about someone who is in the eyes? I think the media do embellish it and I think they do use it for their business of selling papers and selling advertising. I think that sometimes creates issues.
PAUL BARCLAY: I certainly think the treatment that the swimming team has had by the media, and Cate Campbell especially, has been incredibly unfair.
JOHN HARMS: We are also talking with another complicated milieu and that is the relationship between sponsors, advertisers, media, those who run sport, how government runs it, and how then the athletes, what’s their place in all of this? Did you ever feel, for example Sally, that you were a pawn in a game of big business – or potentially could be? Perhaps the male soccer players.
SALLY SHIPARD: I don’t ever feel like there was money up for grabs in order for that pressure –
JOHN HARMS: Wrong person to ask.
SALLY SHIPARD: I don’t know the girls’ personal experiences but I know that in the most recent debate with the FFA and the PFA and the Matildas and the collective bargaining agreement that they wanted to push through with the Socceroos that the girls were used as pawns in that.
JOHN HARMS: They were.
SALLY SHIPARD: Absolutely. I’m not exactly sure of the details there but my heart went out to the girls. They play football very well, but the rest isn’t really up to them. They presume that the PFA has their best interests and, if they don’t, that is who is representing them. It’s a tricky little domain. It is uncharted territory at the moment in terms of women’s football because we have only just started dealing with money.
PAUL BARCLAY: I’m going to take another question because we are almost out of time.
QUESTION: My thanks to the panel for an excellent discussion. You’ve talked about some of the more honourable aspects of the way that athletes conduct themselves and their impact on the wider community. What about the smashed racquet episodes that happen from time to time when things don’t go so well? What responsibility do athletes have to the game itself and to the grassroots from whence they came?
Dr CHRIS SARRA: That’s a good point.
SALLY SHIPARD: From an athlete’s perspective, kids that are on the scene from a very young age, they’re still growing, figuring out how to manage their emotions and become mature adults. As a society we have to accept that that’s going to be the case. It’s as though human error – for example, in swimming, it’s going to be there. You respond to the call of a referee on the field, for example, and it’s human error. These things are going to happen. They are in the public eye. There is so much pressure on them. It’s almost like a matter of acceptance and forgiveness and hopefully for that particular athlete they are able to learn from –
LOUISE BURROWS: But how many times can you say that this is okay? I see where you are coming from but then when do they grow up?
SALLY SHIPARD: In an ideal world they learn from that one particular moment.
JOHN HARMS: In terms of a media perspective, easy story, kid from Canberra with funny hair, precociously talented, likes his PlayStation, iPad or whatever you call those things, throws his racquet, it bounces into the crowd – idiot. That’s that the simple media story. ‘Oh, he’s an idiot again.’ ‘Now he’s an idiot.’ Where is the layered piece that gets to talk to Nick Kyrgios and say, ‘How were you feeling in that moment? Why did you do that? Who are you and where are you from?’ I don’t like seeing it but I don’t just want a simple story. I actually want the full story. But maybe he won’t give it.
CHRISTIAN SPRENGER: We’re never going to have perfect athletes. Yes, they train hard and yes, they want to get to the best. If they do end up getting there, it doesn’t mean that in their DNA they are a perfect person. Naturally sometimes you might get frustrated and it could be more likely that that particular athlete is a repeat offender.
PAUL BARCLAY: I think you want to see the emotions of a real person surface on the sporting field. That’s kind of what we are looking for above and beyond just sporting success, a demonstration of who people are. It’s just a fine line, isn’t it?
CHRISTIAN SPRENGER: Between doing something crazy and doing something that is just out of frustration. Yes, it’s a fine line.
Dr CHRIS SARRA: It comes back to the values you want to propagate in the game and how you want to be perceived, which brings in the complexity of sponsors and the complexity of how you are perceived by young people and if you want mums to let their children play rugby league and those sorts of things. It’s complex. The point you make is true. I know in rugby league, the elite sportsmen and women who play that, they are not like greyhounds who are groomed in a clinical circumstance, there is every chance that those young men have been pulled in from the margins and some of them would have been exposed to domestic violence, alcohol, sexual abuse – so this creates human complexity. They can’t be perfect all the time. There has to be opportunities for them to learn.
PAUL BARCLAY: I am going to have to wrap up the conversation. I could sit here all night and talk about sport. I could keep going for another hour and a half but I appreciate you all have things to do. Thanks very much for coming along tonight. It’s been a terrific conversation. Thanks to the National Museum of Australia for hosting it, but especially thanks to our fantastic panel of guests: Sally, John, Louise, Christian and Chris. [applause]
Dr MAT TRINCA: It’s a directorial prerogative that you get to have the last word. So I’m going to add in my own favourite sporting moment. It’s actually when John Aloisi slotted in that goal. We all know that’s the real defining moment in sport in this country in the last 50 years. I’ll leave it at that.
Thanks everyone for what was a great night of talking about sport but actually talking about what it means to live in this country as well. To see that the two things are intertwined as much as they are is part of the revelation of the night. Can I thank again our panellists and our host Paul Barclay for his excellent work tonight. [applause]
Thanks to the great team here at the National Museum. It’s a shame that I can’t name you all. There are so many people that make an event like this come together. Thanks to the Public Programs team, to the curatorial team for Defining Moments who are here tonight as well and to the media team. Thank you very much for all your great work.
As flagged, this discussion will be broadcast on Monday, 22 August on RN’s Big Ideas program at 8pm. So listen in. It always sounds different when you listen afterwards. That’s what I find.
I would like to invite you all to join the panel and those of us from the Museum for a drink downstairs in the bay window. I’d particularly thank our wine sponsors Capital Wines. While downstairs you will also have an opportunity to purchase the earlier mentioned edition of the Griffith Review, ‘Our Sporting Life’. If you enjoyed tonight’s discussion, and who didn’t, please join us again here on 21 September for what no doubt will be a fascinating debate on the role of postwar immigration in defining our nation. As the son of Italian migrants, I feel personally implicated in that one. In the meantime, on 9 September you will also have the chance from that date to see a remarkable show that will open here at that time called A History of the World in 100 Objects. Please come and see it. You won’t see another show like it. Join us now for a drink downstairs. Thank you.
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Date published: 22 September 2016