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The spirit of competition: Australia is losing its way

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Is disgraced Australian test cricket captain Steve Smith contributing to the nation's declining interest in sport? (Image via YouTube)

Recent statistics show an increase in apathy towards sport within our nation, which has not been helped by the recent cricket scandal, writes Dr Glen Anderson.

THE RECENT ALLEGATIONS of ball tampering leveled at Cameron Bancroft, David Warner and Steve Smith in the third Test against South Africa in Cape Town have left many Australians embarrassed. This sort of cheating is not only frowned upon, it is regarded as un-Australian.

As disappointing as the incident is and as much as it is restricted to a few individuals who are not necessarily representative of the whole, it may speak to a deeper sporting malaise in Australian culture.

Put simply, have we lost our way when it comes to sport?

It could be that commercial imperatives have begun to supersede the spirit of sport itself — namely a fair contest between opposing and honourable parties. In an era governed by money and contracts, a "win at all costs" mentality may be infiltrating the Australian sporting landscape. In such a culture, ball tampering and the like is just another mechanism to achieve success.

The irony, of course, is that this very mentality undermines the endorsement-driven commercial opportunities of elite sports men and women. It now seems likely, for instance, that Cameron Bancroft, David Warner and Steve Smith will lose almost all commercial sponsorships they currently enjoy.

Australian sport is also suffering from decreasing participation rates. Roy Morgan Research has revealed that, in 2001, 34% of men aged 14 and over played one or more competitive sports. By 2016, this figure had fallen to just 26%. A similar fall-off can be discerned with women; in 2001 the participation rate for women aged 14 and over was 20%, but by 2016 it had fallen to 14%. Sports with particularly negative participation rates include: Tennis (-35%), squash (-67%), cricket (-10%), netball (-24%), softball (-24%), field hockey (-17%), volleyball (-10%), rugby league (-27%) and rugby union (-63%).

The exact reasons for these statistics are unknown. More than likely, however, the rising cost of living – and the corresponding need to work more hours than ever before to make ends meet – has forced Australians to curtail their traditionally high participation rates.

Among the young, there has probably been a renewed emphasis on school and tertiary study, as Australia transitions to a service and knowledge-based economy.

Participation rates have also likely dropped due to the well-known childhood obesity epidemic, as once physical conditioning gives way to obesity, sport ceases to be pleasurable and instead becomes an ordeal.

In light of these problems, it is perhaps unsurprising that Australia’s sporting performance has taken a tumble in the rankings. If we consider Olympic medal tallies, there is a decline since the late 1990s. In 1996 (Atlanta), Australia won 41 medals, in 2000 (Sydney) 58 medals, in 2004 (Athens) 49 medals, in 2008 (Beijing) 46 medals, in 2012 (London) 35 medals, and most recently in 2016 (Rio de Janeiro), just 29 medals — easily our worst performance since 1996.

This seems to indicate an ever-creeping performance deficit. Undoubtedly, there are many factors which filter into these results, such as Olympic hosting, funding, increasing international competitiveness, and even luck. Nonetheless, the overall trend is down. When we examine team sports such as rugby and soccer, then we again find a series of lacklustre results. The Socceroos have dropped from a FIFA Ranking of 14 in September 2009, to 37 in March 2018. The Wallabies have consistently been displaced by New Zealand and South Africa under the World Rugby Rankings. The last time we hosted the Rugby World Cup was 1999.

Finally, there may be a deeper and less tangible malaise affecting Australian sport — namely, a loss of competitiveness.

Various junior sporting programs including soccer, cricket, netball, AFL and rugby league have promoted playing sport without keeping score. No one loses. Sport is fundamentally about competition. It involves two critical life lessons: the reality of losing and how to be a good loser. Indeed, in Australian vernacular, the expression “good sport” is a term of endearment, connoting a character defined not necessarily by winning but by a gallant attempt to win and a depth of personality which can maturely accept loss.

Paralleling the loss of sporting competitiveness is that school children are increasingly being told that they can achieve or do anything. Sadly, this message, while uplifting, is untrue. We cannot all be astronauts. Or rocket scientists, veterinarians, judges, or medical specialists.

We cannot all win an Olympic gold medal.

We cannot all make the Australian cricket team.

Life is difficult and any success is hard won.

As we insulate our children from the reality of losing – as we insist on propagating the falsehood of “sameness” – we are failing to properly prepare them for life’s competitive realities.

Perhaps we also make it more tempting for them to cheat in adulthood – cue here ball tampering – when expectations fail to equate with reality.

In conclusion, some might ask why all the disquietude? After all, it is only sport, it is just a game. But, in reality, it's not. Sport helps to shape character and build mental toughness. It can channel the human spirit in the most remarkable and inspiring ways. It can harness the power of the mind and body to achieve extraordinary feats. Lessons learned on the cricket pitch, the running track and netball court shape our future lives and make us better people.

This can have positive outcomes for family life, the economy, innovation and almost anything else you can think of.

The recent ball tampering incident is an important wake-up call for Australian sporting culture. Let’s hope we have not lost our way.

Dr Glen Anderson researches in the areas of international law, equity, company and property law. He has formerly taught Australian and international politics at Macquarie University.


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