Kicking Goals: Sport in Australian National Identity

My book Kicking Goals was published in March.  It takes a fresh look at the common image of Australia as a sporting nation.  Sporting passions have ebbed and flowed since Archer won the first Melbourne Cup in 1861.  Tracing these, the book emphasises the differing ways Australians have loved our sports, saluted our national symbols, and often stirred the hell out of both.

I guess it’s common enough when you reach a personal milestone to think ‘How the hell did I end up here?’  When we were chatting just after the book came out, Paul Daffey asked me that question – and reckoned Footy Almanac readers would be interested in the answer.

So what did get me started on the perilous journey of trying to write this book?

I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with ‘one size fits all’ national stereotypes – which often seem to turn up on sports arenas.   Just one reminder that it ain’t necessarily so came in a chat we had a few years back.  The guy grew up in our neck of the woods in the 1930s, and asked

–          Do you ever play golf at the Elsternwick course?

–          Yeah, we get out there from time to time

–          I lost my virginity behind a bunker on that course.

It’s not always this extreme, but sports, and sports venues, often have very different memories for different people.

Five years back, I thought I’d ease back a little on my day job as an economics consultant, and follow some research interests.  My wife Gail reckons ‘some reduction in work hours that turned out to be!’

I planned to look more closely at this Australian sporting image.  There are many good books on Australian sports, with detailed accounts of many individual sports, and overviews such as Brian Stoddart’s (1986) Saturday Afternoon Fever, and Richard Cashman’s (1995) Paradise of Sport: The Rise of Organised Sport in Australia.  These and other sports historians have long documented plenty of claims – going back to 1880 – that Australia is ‘sports mad’.  However, no-one had taken a detailed look at exactly what the term meant, or how we might measure it.

At uni, I specialised in economic history, trying to measure trends and developments.  So I started looking for international comparisons, for how Australia rates against others in ‘sports mad’ status.  There’s actually a fair amount of competition, and the results vary – we do well on some measures and at some times, but not so well on others.

The international links also led me to look at what others have said about national identity and how it changes.  Why do such images change?  A lot comes from current agendas, both social and often political, of who we would like to be.  That strongly affects how we see sporting images.  In the 1920s and 30s, sport for the puritan wowser was a remarkable contrast to the larrikin’s love of a flutter and a beer.  More recently, there’s been tension between sport for the die hard fans and sport as a mass event.

I started tossing around some ideas on these themes in 2005.  Once the project got under way, it quickly had me intrigued.  You have to have that sort of passion to keep you going, for the three years writing and the couple of years in the finalising and production process.

An important part of keeping the interest alive was the encouragement I received from family and friends.  And from the monthly seminar series run by the Melbourne chapter of the Australian Society of Sports History: a remarkably knowledgeable, welcoming and encouraging bunch of people.

But, as any budding author knows, the energy you put into writing has to be accompanied by efforts to persuade publishers to take a chance on the book.

I tried a few commercial publishers. They encouraged me by saying how much they personally would like to read the book.  However, they then passed on publishing it, saying more analytic books on sport don’t sell that well.  Their comments did help in one big way – suggesting that links to national images and identity would be much more interesting for readers than a simple recounting of sports history.

With a few rejections under my belt, I was very pleased when I won a two-stage deal with Routledge and the Taylor and Francis journal Soccer and SocietySoccer and Society published the book as a special issue in September 2009 (with on-line ordering available for each chapter individually).   Routledge subsequently published the book version in March 2010.

The process took a little time – though when I mentioned the delays to one contact she asked what I was complaining about: ‘most academics would give their eye teeth to have a book published by Routledge.’

While I was rapt Routledge agreed to publish my work, there was one downside: the company’s high reputation as an academic publisher comes with an orientation toward short print runs and fairly high prices.  Despite the warnings from the commercial publishers, I was keen to have a more competitively priced offering available in Australia.

Offering to put some effort into marketing the book, I persuaded Routledge to publish a paperback version in Australia. This came out as part of their international paperbacksdirect offerings, released only three weeks after the hardback was published.  Perhaps ironically, distribution arrangements meant problems providing the paperback here in Australia – so paperback copies have to be ordered from the UK!

The St Kilda library kindly hosted a launch for the book on 29 April.  It seemed fitting, as the library has many of the books I used for the research – and they put on a very good launch!  I turned up half an hour early to check the computers and set up.  As I did a practice run through my Powerpoint slides, a couple of kids in the front row seemed fascinated – though their Mum dragged them away with a dampening ‘that’s sport, it won’t be interesting’.  That did wonders for my nerves – though thankfully some 50 people came along thinking it would be interesting.  My nerves were also a little edgy hoping that I’d pitched my presentation at the right level.  I obviously overdid the worries.  Roy Hay gave a very generous introduction, and from my first slide (Fatso the wide-arsed wombat) the audience stuck with me.  Even to the extent of choosing to keep a lively discussion going when I offered a choice of that or moving immediately to the library’s wine and cheese.  It was a great night.

So we’re now in the marketing stage, trying to interest papers and radio in reviews or stories.  Some great responses already from our local papers.  The publisher seems impressed – commenting in one UK phone call: ‘We haven’t had an author before who’s put so much effort into marketing his book’.  Hopefully this will get some good publicity – and even a few sales!

Tony Ward’s Kicking Goals: Sport in Australian National Identity was published in March.  The paperback edition is now available from (£26.99 plus shipping costs) or from ($50 including shipping costs)


  1. Distribution arrangements are indeed messy, especially for small and academic presses.

    Wish you could come to the Winter at Wheeler programme.

    (where there is a good “Sport and Ethics” presentation).

    “Fatso” was a great start.

  2. Helen Van Der Nagel says

    Wish I had known about the launch. Would love to have come along to show support. Anything that starts with Fatso, the wombat, would be good to see! Keen to read book now.

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