Almanac Review: Our Sporting Life (Griffith Review’s recent sports edition)

A Review of Sorts


It seems cliché to say—and maybe it is—but sport is at the centre of Australian culture. It’s this culture that Our Sporting Life tries its hardest to unravel, to get to the bottom of why sport is so integral to us as Australians and why sport is woven into the fabric of society. With a culture divided by issues such as corruption, race and sex it is little wonder that sport has been at the forefront of these contemporary Australian debates.


Edited by Julianne Schultz, the tone for the edition—a collection of essays, reportage, fiction, memoir, poetry and a photo essay—is set early with Schultz’s introductory piece, Learning to lead. Exploring the omnipresence of sport at the heart of these issues, Schultz argues that for all the terrible that comes from sport—the sexism, racism and murkiness that comes with money—there will always be individuals within these sports capable of providing leadership beyond their physical gifts.


On investigating the governance of sport in Australia in his piece, See how they run, Gideon Haigh finds a system that is steeped in chauvinism. Using his knowledge of the 1977 play, The Club, Haigh finds structures that have change very little in the four decades since the original Williamson play. He notes (and laments) the shift from the Australian sporting club to the American franchise, with an increase in money and corruption but not necessarily in that order, where managerial power is abused in a series of Kafkaesque bureaucratic procedures.


From the wild boardrooms of Australia’s most powerful sporting organisations to Papua New Guinea, Sean Dorney’s story, Pacific games, investigates the lack of PNG players in the NRL. Despite rugby league being the national sport of Papua New Guinea and the country being a former colony of Australia, Dorney reports that the dearth of PNG players in the NRL comes down to the “New Zealand Route” and what has lead to the small country being a victim of immigration regulations, both here and in New Zealand. Neither reader nor writer can miss the irony of this, with Dorney suggesting that the Australian government look at a sports aid program instead of “expecting PNG to solve Australia’s asylum seeker problem”.


John Harms discovered that even the sanctity of the Olympics was not immune to this politicising and to his aging cynicism. Polishing tarnished ideals, one of the many memoir pieces in the collection recounts the writer’s changing views on the Olympics and the shifting principles of athletes in general. For Harms, the ideals of the Olympics was always held up, unsullied by the commodities that was sinking its claws into other sports, the very same that was “… going to make media moguls, sponsors and sporting organisations extremely wealthy and powerful.”


In 1995, David Foster Wallace, in his rumination on professional tennis and athletes, wrote “[W]e’ll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes … But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us.” These very same people, Wallace thought, had consented to live in a world like that of a child’s: a world that was very small and very serious. Despite this, we adore our athletes; venerate them, yet they are human and will make human mistakes. While this collection addresses the societal issues of sexism, racism and money, it’s a bit hyperbolic to suggest the fabric of society is fraying due to the actions of the greedy, power-hungry few. “People and organisations always face challenges,” Harms wrote. “We fall easily, tempted by shiny promises.”


As any ardent sports fan knows, the outcome and the end result is incidental; it has little bearing on the beauty and appeal of any given sport or athlete. For now, the fabric remains intact. Just. Sport is a microcosm of an Australian culture we have created. Not one month removed from an election that returned Cory Bernardi and voted Pauline Hanson back into Parliament, thank God for sport, where these discussions can occur because society at large isn’t doing so well. And maybe we’re all stuffed.



GIDEON HAIGH delivers a forensic analysis of sports governance in Australia. At  a time when those charged with running our sports are under greater scrutiny than ever before, how are they faring? What changes are being instituted to bring sports administration into the twenty-first century, and what forces are opposing change?

Sport in Australia is still very much a man’s world, as FLETA PAGE explores. Recounting her own teenage love of football, to a career in sports journalism, to an encounter with the notorious Chris Gayle, and on to a key role in sporting administration, she asks how girls and young women might continue to break down the barriers to entry.

As a young boy, JOHN HARMS treated the Olympics as an object of veneration. As an adult sports journalist, he travels to the International Olympic Academy in Greece to honour the memory and ideals of Baron de Coubertin. How much of that youthful enthusiasm has survived the intervening years of experience, with their endless cases of corruption?

How can a city such as Rio de Janeiro, already so troubled by crime, corruption and poverty, use an Olympics to overcome extensive social disadvantage? TRACEY HOLMES examines the legacy an Olympic Games leaves behind for its host city, and asks if this ideal has worked out for other Olympic cities?

TOM BAMFORTH re-visits West Heidelberg in Melbourne, site of the 1956 Olympic village. He finds an environment that reflects contemporary Australia’s underclass: poor yet aspirational, anonymous yet co- operative, with disadvantage being slowly transformed by a community drawn in part from world diasporas, determined to create a better life amid the fibro homes.

ANNIE ZAIDI meets an intrepid group of Indian female wrestlers. Here, ordinary young women are doing an extraordinary thing: breaking down centuries of tradition and taboo to achieve gold medal success in international competition.

Growing up in 1970s suburban Brisbane, WILLIAM MCINNES was overawed by the rugby league greats of the day – characters whose faces and stats were collected on matchboxes and footy cards. Looking back with poignancy and humour, McInnes recalls the characters, the language, the politics, the club songs and all the arcane rituals that surrounded one of his boyhood passions.

Other contributors include: Sean Dorney (reportage, Pacific games), Stuart Glover (essay, Their body politics), Jonathan West (essay, Back to the future), Ellen van Neerven ( memoir, Personal score), Scott Rankin (essay, Time for spart: sport + art), Colin Tatz (essay, Transient triumphalism), Catriona Menzies-Pike (memoir, Race plans), Luke Johnson (fiction, Ferocious animals), Gay Lynch (fiction, Icarus: Bot), Gerhard Fischer (memoir, Dragon mother), Josh Chiat (essay, Muscular Judaism on the frontier), Alicia Sometimes  (poetry, The stands), Christopher Warren (essay, When the park comes alive), Tim Butcher and Barry Judd (essay, The Aboriginal football ethics), Gregory Philips and Matthew Klugman (essay, The land we play on), Jessica White (fiction, Unfurling), Keane Shum (reportage, A great leap forward), Chris Armstrong (poetry, Match point), Selina Tusitala Marsh (poetry, New Zealand Herald, May 4 2016) and Wayne Quilliam (photo essay, Outback rules).

Our Sporting Life, edited by JULIANNE SCHULTZ, goes beyond the conventional headlines to put sport under the microscope.

Leave a Comment