Sports history in Australian history




I’ve just read John Gordon’s marvellous, sad, inspiring, thorough story of Tom Banks and his family. I don’t suppose that most contributors to The Almanac would dispute that this is a real part of Australia’s history, but we seem almost apologetic about it.  I think that is unnecessary because the sports pages of Australian newspapers – the first drafts of history – remain a marvellous resource for the study of our past and the implications for the present. So much more remains to be discovered in the sports pages and the archives and the collections of families and groups across the nation. The overwhelming concentration on the national, state and colonial levels means that the role of sport in the lives of most Australians – Indigenous as well as of European heritage – remains seriously unexplored. This is where the Almanac’s distinctive contribution is often at its best, as Gordon’s story abundantly illustrates. The local throws much more light on the national than has been fully exploited so far.


You have to be careful with the newspaper sources however. They are not always the best or most accurate of contemporary records. Even John’s careful research has a number of issues – somewhere new evidence has come to light that requires a revision of accepted ‘truths’ or beliefs so widely held that they are seldom, if ever, challenged. One journalist I came across admitted that he wrote local politicians’ speeches ahead of their delivery, containing bracketed applause or comment even before they had been heard. Modern writers often rely on the memories of old people recorded in the press about events of the latters’ childhoods and this can be dangerous. Memory is the most inventive faculty, my Vice-Chancellor at Deakin University, Fred Jevons, once said to me. Trevor Ruddell reminds us that while memory relates to the past it is told in the present and is influenced by all sorts of contemporary concerns – some political, others quite personal.


One problem we face is how this local material can be aggregated into something which is of real national relevance rather than just a specific curiosity. I’ve become a little concerned about a number of historical generalisations about Indigenous people as victims of ‘settler colonial governance’, one of those terms which becomes a sort of intellectual prison though it started off as an attempt to characterise a specific period in the country’s history. Another potential prison is the notion of an age of genocide in respect of our original inhabitants. I don’t want to downplay the catastrophic impact of the Europeans on our Indigenous population, probably more destructive than COVID-19 or the Spanish influenza, but I worry more than a little when this portrays the surviving Indigenous people as solely victims rather than actors in their own right as they tried to come to terms with this cataclysm. I’ve tried to do this in a couple of books – one looking at Indigenous people and their encounters with Australian football, the other the biography of one of the most impressive individuals whose life touched a whole range of human experience, not just the sports in which he was a most impressive performer.


So the potential of sports history for the Almanac and the wider world is limitless and we should be shouting this from the rooftops or via social media if seeking a wider audience. From a very selfish point of view, I’ve noted that one of my articles, on why soccer has never become the main code of football in Australia, has been downloaded more than 13,000 times from the Deakin University website. So sports history seems to matter to the current generation and I don’t think we should be apologetic or diffident about the contribution we can make when studying and writing about sport for our audiences.



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  1. Kevin Densley says

    Wonderful stuff, Roy! It’s always a fine thing to read your reflections about historical matters such as the highly important ones you’ve dealt with here.

  2. Roy, I think that the points you make in your third paragraph express my own thoughts over a number of years which I’ve not been able to distill into your nuanced, constructive expression.

  3. Thank you both. The article is mentioned with a link back to this page in the Contemporary History website at Deakin University. I’m booked in to do a seminar on this broad theme and as a trailer for the celebration of Pompey Austin’s unique game for Geelong in 1872. Bob Gartland will be organising the 150th at the Geelong Football Club next May. Something to look forward to.

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