The highpoint of sport occurred more than 2,000 years ago when the ancient Greeks established an education system which placed a significant emphasis on the playing of sport and in particular the educational value of participation in sport. The central role of sport in the education system coincided with the flourishing of Greek culture which included democracy, philosophy, architecture and law. That is the Greeks had developed a sports system from the grassroots to the elite level and what characterised this system was the emphasis placed on participation. Subsequently the Greek world was overrun by the Romans who dismantled this participationary system and replaced it with spectacles. For the conquering Romans, sport became something you watched in arenas and hippodromes and usually involved some form of brutality. For the ruling Roman classes it became a way of controlling the masses and from this emerged, ‘Bread and Spectacles’.
This brief broad brush history of ancient sport reflects the history of Australian sport since British colonialization. That is, the British invaded and transplanted their institutions to Australia and of course a key institution was their schools and universities. Of course the British had looked back to ancient Greece and modelled their education system on the ancient Greek system. Therefore sports flourished in this system and so in the antipodes sport came to assume a central position. In Australia, it gained more and more ascendancy than in the home country. There are a number of reasons for this such as the climate, geography, link to nationalism and chequered past. The point being that by the 1880s it was a central social institution in Australia, something which united most Australians. This has been documented by a number of scholars both local and international. While spectatorship became a central feature of many sports such as Rugby League and Australian Rules football, participation in sport at the youth level was a central feature of growing up Australian. What made it so unique was that it was not class based or gender based, there were robust sporting traditions across in both school sport and community sport. There are striking examples of how this emphasis on participation played out. For example by the 1890s the NSW Department of Education had established compulsory swim lessons for all government school students; and post-World War 1, all sports had junior sport competitions which were district based.
Sadly, by the 1990’s this model of Australian sport began to decline. This decline coincided with the rise of youth obesity and physical inactivity, the growth of commercialised sport and surprisingly a golden period in elite level sport culminating in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. The commodification of Australian sport was a movement which went unchecked. The emphasis was the promotion of sport at the elite level. The Roman spectacle had its renaissance. Sport became just another commodity. The rationale presented by advocates of the spectacle was that by promoting excellence at the elite level there would be a trickle-down effect and these elite athletes and their successes in sport, such as the Olympic Games, would stimulate interest at the youth participation model. This theory was never tested. Rugby League for example commands arguably the highest TV ratings, although it has minor and declining youth participation rates.
The commercial spectacles and this new philosophy of sport resulted in two outcomes. First, there was a decline of sport at the youth level. If the Health and Physical Education national curriculum is released it promises to add to this decline as school sport will be no longer mandated. The cost of youth sport has meant significant numbers of youth have not ventured into community sport. It is not a coincidence that these trends occurred alongside the general decline of academic performance of Australian schools. Sport for many Australian youth does not involve any participation. Therefore all the educational, social and of course health benefits are lost to a generation of youth.
Second, it has altered our meaning of what sport is about. In this new philosophical approach we view sport as entertainment. Big business has clearly hijacked sport. All our major sporting codes have strong links to the gambling industry; the junk food industry and of course the alcohol industry. These industries have many lobbyists and very rarely is their involvement with sport questioned. Dissenting voices are usually negated by smoke screens and mirrors. There have been many examples of this in the last few years, although the most striking example in Rugby League was around the show piece of this sport, the ‘State of Origin’ spectacle, which became centre stage. The match heavily sponsored by VB and Sports Bet coincided with the revelations that current players were under investigation for match fixing. A key feature in the revelations was the shock and disbelief that our sports had ‘been corrupted’ by the behaviour of a few. The catch phrases were the usual ones ‘give them life bans’, and ‘punish the players’.
What once again went under the radar was the fact that these behaviours may be a product of the commercialisation of sport. Athletes from a very early age understand (sooner or later) that their involvement in sport is fundamentally linked to financial remuneration. Take for example Rugby League. To make it to the top you have battered your body with hits, weights, concussions, torn ligaments and played injured with pain killers. Any game you play, could be your last game. You make it to the top and are the recipient of large sums of money. By this stage you have understood the logic of commercialised sport. You see corruption and paradoxes around you: links to gambling agencies, links to alcohol, third party payments, salary cap rorts, players treated with disdain by clubs once they are no longer useful. It can be a recipe for more corruption because money is what drives the sport.
Therefore while it has always been acknowledged that sport has been central to the Australian way of life, it is clear that this centrality is linked to spectatorship. What needs to be done is to have a conversation on this movement to spectatorship.
Steve Georgakis is senior lecturer of pedagogy and sports studies at the University of Sydney and is current program director of the Human Movement and Health Education Program. The author of more than 50 academic publications, he has published on wide and varied aspects of physical education and sports studies including archaeology, history, sociology, pedagogy, comparative and international.