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Where has our sporting culture taken us?

By Thomas Beyer

As the Australian public sits in shock horror at what is shaping as one of this country’s greatest sporting scandals, I wonder why we’re so surprised. Far from an environment of mass participation that revolves around the family, your friends and the local club, there’s been a growing suggestion that Australia has become not so much a sporting nation as a sport watching nation. And from there I feel it’s inevitable that athletes and clubs will go to the extremes of drug use to cheat the system that we’re seeing exposed at this very moment.

All around Perth many local sporting clubs are struggling. I belong to a couple and talking to some of the “old timers” I hear about the days fifteen, twenty, or thirty years ago when most everyone played a sport or two for fun and to keep fit. You’d all play your game in the underage or feeder grades and then gather round with your mates later in the arvo to watch the firsts. Win or lose you had a good time and there was always next week.

The reality of today is that participation rates are down and people tend to revolve around our elite codes, living and dying with the success of the Dockers, Eagles, Glory or Scorchers, and treating the players as Gods. We should acknowledge them as the very talented athletes and often worthy role models that they are, but I feel some friends and acquaintances of mine need reminding they’re both human and fallible. I’m used to seeing my Fremantle Dockers perennially underperform and this exasperates me immensely, but if at the end of the day we’re beaten then to me, that’s that. However I feel like as a society our desire to see our team win has gone too far.

Virtually all Australian codes have measures such as a salary cap to keep the playing field relatively even, and strict rules against performance enhancing drugs. I believe the whole point of these measures being that we can enjoy a sporting spectacle without bemoaning an inherent imbalance in the sport, or questioning the authenticity of someone’s performance. However our desire to win has eroded these ideals to the point that such pressure is heaped upon athletes and clubs, and the reward of fame and being cherished is so enticing that these measures are routinely broken for that prize.

In many ways the resources, energy and hope we as a nation pour into the Olympics reflects this dire situation better than most examples. I love seeing an Australian win a gold medal, but I’m also aware our most recent Olympic performance was underwhelming and below expectations, yet the planes didn’t fall out of the sky, nor did the economy crash or hospitals burn down when James Magnussen won a silver rather than gold medal. We were all disappointed, but nothing more. And as other countries develop more and more sophisticated sporting academies Australians are setting themselves up for heartbreak if we need to finish in the top few nations at every Olympic Games.

Perhaps we can use this lesson to show that a focus on local, mass participation sports would better serve our society with both physical and mental health benefits to be gained, rather than ignoring our own bodies and backyards to sit in front of the TV. I will always cheer for Australia at the Olympics, just like I will always cheer for the teams I play with. But I’m also willing to accept if Australia’s best isn’t good enough for a gold medal, I can still enjoy the beauty of the sport, just like I’m willing to accept my hockey team won’t always win a premiership, but I’ll always enjoy playing the game I play.

If we ever fully realise the culprits in this latest sporting scandal, I believe they’ll be found to have acted reprehensibly and deserve our shame and punishment, however if we want to see these scandals blemishing sport come to an end instead of just dealing with them as they happen, maybe we need a cultural shift taking some of the attention away from the stadium and back to the local sporting oval?

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