A Sporting Nation

We love to win

When you look at what Australians have done on the world stage, the Australians who have made a name for themselves Internationally, our sportsmen and sportswomen are right up near the top of the list. While their achievements may not contribute to a Cure for Cancer or World Peace, there's nothing quite like a Nation celebrating success as one. It seems that many Australians are addicted to that feeling.

You could probably call it an obsession, and it's been part of the country's culture for just about as long as the country itself. Of course, when you look at the origins of this nation of mine, it's hardly surprising that sport played a large part in Australia's history. There wouldn't have been a lot to do for someone coming from England, landing in a fledgling penal colony, in a land that was growing from scratch.

Just as well the weather's good for playing sport too.

When you come down to it, that's probably the biggest determining factor to the countries love of sport - both playing, and spectating. In 1999 - 2000, close to 55% of Australian adults participated in some form of sport or physical activity. The climate is perfect for being outdoors for a large portion of the year, providing incentive to get out of the house, and actually enjoy the weather. The majority of Australians live in coastal areas - not too far from the beach. And how we love the surf and the sand! Each summer, thousands upon thousands of people converge on beaches surrounding the country. Whether they're planning a lazy day reading a book, a swim, or attempting to catch the perfect wave, they're all outside while they do it.

As well as being a magnet for those who have overheated in the hot Australian summers, the beach is also home to one of the countries finest organisations - Surf Life Saving clubs. Naturally, when you have a beach culture, people flocking to the coast, some of those people are going to get in trouble, and need help. Surf Life Saving in Australia was born on the 18th of October 1907, with the formation of the New South Wales Surf Bathing Association - later to become the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia. Throughout the year, you can head down to an Australian beach, and see the red and yellow flags indicating safe areas to swim, as well as a Surf Lifesaving volunteer, ready to help if needed. The incredible thing, is that they're mostly volunteers - in fact, they pay membership fees to their club. The club's Chief Patron, The Duke of Edinburgh, probably summed it up best:

"Look at the surf lifesaver of Australia; they pay a subscription to their club for the privilege of risking their necks to save others."

One of the most spectacular events you can witness in Australia is the Surf Lifesaving Carnival. Several clubs will come together along a single stretch of beach, to compete in a number of disciplines. Competition may be in events such as surf swimming, surf ski or board paddling, Inflatiable Rescue Boat events (including rescuing a person from the water), or beach events involving running, and sprint races. However, the most spectacular events involve traditional forms of surf lifesaving - no longer used having given way to faster, more efficient forms of rescue. Of these, the surf boat races are the most amazing to witness.

Five people - four rowing, one steering - take an 8 metre wood or fibreglass boat from the shore, through a 100 metre course around a turning buoy, before finishing back on the shore. On a day with a rough surf, this event in incredible to see. Initially, the crew must negotiate the breaking surf using nothing more than their own power. Tactics are very important in this race - it can be far better to go out slowly, choosing the best time to break through the surf, than going hard from the outset only to hit a breaking wave. The same applies when returning to the shore, where often the difference between winning and loosing can be the ability to catch a good wave back to the shore. Many times, the boat in the lead can be overtaken right towards the end of the race simply because a trailing boat has caught a decent wave, that takes them all the way back in much more quickly than is possible by rowing.

Of course, if the waves are up, there will be wipe outs. Get just a touch off dead straight on to a wave - whether going out, or coming back in - and your boat will be over in a flash. About all there is to do if this happens is try to find the surface, and retrieve the oars!

This is an example of just one of the sports popular in Australia - and this example is mainly a local competition. If you really want to get an Australian to show their passion for a game, give them an international contest. Oh, and a beer...that would definately help. If you actually buy them the beer, you've just made a new best friend too.

When I think of the sports - particularly team sports - that Australia excels at, the list is pretty impressive. Cricket, Rugby League and Rugby Union, Netball, Hockey - more I'm sure I'm forgetting. In the last couple of weeks, even our Soccer (or as it's known in most of the world, football) team managed to beat England. On top of that, Australians are making a name for themselves on the world stage in individual sports such as Tennis, Boxing, Surfing, Golf.

And that's before you get to the Olympic Games. Held in Sydney, in 2000, the Olympics was an event that sent the normally fanatic sporting public, into a state of abolute sporting ecstacy. Sydney suddenly became the party capital of the world, and the entire Games were held in a spirit of celebration. The (arguably) biggest sporting event in the world had come to our place, and we were going to enjoy it! Australia won 58 medals in total, coming 4th overall on the medal tally.

Evidence of the national obsession with all things sporting is everywhere - AFL games in Melbourne attract crowds of over 60,000 people, International cricket matches involving Australia generally sell out, whichever city they are held in. However, the event that really stands out to my mind, is a horse race.

They call it 'The Race That Stops a Nation'. This isn't a simple overstating of things either - on the first Tuesday in November each year, the running of the Melbourne Cup brings Australia to a virtual standstill for a few minutes. I don't know of any statistics - and doubt any have ever been gathered - but I think it would not be too far from the truth to say that 75% of the people in the country are in front of a television set when the Melbourne Cup is run.

Then there are those Australians who become legends. This is always a subjective call, but most Australians would identify Don Bradman as being at the pinacle of sporting heroes in Australia - the man with a cricketing batting average of 99.94 - unlikely to ever be approached by another player, let alone surpassed. There are so many others though, both modern and from the past. Evonne Goolagong Cawley, the Aboriginal tennis player who won Wimbledon twice - the first Aboriginal Australian to win Wimbledon. Sir Jack Brabham, three time Formula 1 World Champion. Herb Elliott, who was undefeated from 1958 - 1960, running 17 sub-four minute miles, and retiring at age 22.

Ian Thorpe, the swimmer who may as well have flippers for feet, and seems to break a world record every time he hops in the pool....of course, he's breaking his own records these days.

And the examples of Australia's obsession with sport just seem to keep coming. If you really want to get a true appreciation of how passionate the people of this coutry are about their sport, you'll have to visit. Get someone to take you to the Sydney or Melbourne Cricket Ground to see a game live. Whether it be Cricket, AFL, Rugby League, Rugby Union - when you're in a massive crowd, feeling the energy that radiates - it's something special. I was lucky enough to see a cricket match in Sydney one New Years Day several years ago - Australia vs The West Indies. At the end of it all, Michael Bevan for the Australian team needed to hit a boundary (4 runs) from the last ball to win the game. He did it, smashing the ball back past spin bowler Roger Harper. The euphoria after the ball smacked into the fence was like nothing I have ever experienced before, or since. About 50,000 people rose as one, and the noise generated by that crowd was deafening. If you ever have the chance to see a match at an Australian sporting ground, do it.

And if you're really lucky, you may even see a streaker!

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