By Aussie Backpacker Justin Dowsett
Australia is united under one religion and that religion is sport. Praise to the footy gods, amen for the cricket, sainthood for the Thorpedo; Australia is sports mad. As an American living in Melbourne, I have come to realize that Aussies place sports somewhere between food and shelter in their hierarchy of needs. A surefire way to strike up a conversation in any Aussie pub is to be knowledgeable about your Aussie sports. Here is an introductory primer to the most popular pastimes.
Australian Rules Football
As an American I can draw a few cultural parallels between this beloved Aussie game and our NFL (by the way, please don't call it "gridiron": kids in the states would get teased mercilessly if they referred to it by this term). Both sports attract an extremely frenzied and dedicated support base and both are essentially endemic only to their respective country. When I arrived in Australia, I had only the vaguest notion of what the sport entailed. It seemed to be basically a grand fusion of rugby and cocaine. Since coming to Melbourne, I have developed a deep appreciation for the game, and more so for the supporters whose passion rivals even the most dedicated soccer hooligans. To endear yourself at the pub, pronounce your love for the game and you will be received with open arms and asked to join in the revelry, so long as you don’t claim your support for Collingwood.
Rugby constitutes a niche sport back in the U.S. One may see a collegiate club team or a few stubby old guys in short shorts and striped shirts in a park but beyond that our knowledge of the game is extremely limited, so much so that I had no idea there were two different factions of rugby. Purely by living in Australia, you pick up a few things about the sport and eventually can even discern between the two. Sure, on first impression it is the same. Teams of 13 or 15 impossibly oversized human beings with extra sets of muscles that must have been surgically implanted (really, what is that muscle that sits on the upper back and around the neck and why is it so massive on these dudes?), fighting over an oblong ball and trying to advance it to their side of the oval. Occasionally, there is some kicking and a session where they have massive bro hugs, but beyond that I am lost on the sport. Rugby League is very popular in Australia, particularly in Queensland and NSW, but is lesser known in international circles. It is characterized by extremely hard collisions and an emphasis on athleticism. League is considered a "working man's sport" and is generally considered more watchable because of its simplified rules and faster pace of play.
Rugby union, on the other hand, is known as an "Elitist Game" reserved for the upper crust. I disagree completely with this assertion. Just look at the lexicon of the game -- "maul" "scrum" -- I don't associate these words with ritz and glamour. The sport itself is a bit more of a chess game, with players of various sizes and skill sets and an encyclopedia-sized codex of rules. On the international stage, rugby union dominates, highlighted by the popular Tri Nations series and The Rugby World Cup. Super Rugby is the professional league of rugby, and Australia has five of the teams. It is a veritable fact that as Americans, we are, if not terrible at rugby, at least a few steps behind the global powers of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Lithuania, (yes, Lithuania is a "power" at something). Despite our meagerness, we are the reigning Olympic gold medalists in the sport, last played in the 1924 games.
...or "The Cricket" is the most popular summer pastime of Australia. Granted, the cricket has huge followings outside of Australia (England, Pakistan, India, all love and adore the game). Coming from America I must profess that I think this game is only slightly more entertaining than trying to bend a spoon with my mind. I refuse to acknowledge the intensity of a game where there are "tea breaks," and the competitors are adorned in white and there is a good chance that by the end of the match there will not be a stain of either dirt, mud, or blood. Still, the Aussies come out in droves for the cricket, where test matches can literally go on forever (well the record is 10 days, but that is still a long time; wars have been won in less). However, I'm relatively positive that most Aussies go to these matches as an excuse to drink copious amounts of beer and the women come to ogle the players, who my wife profess all appear to be good looking. This is the primary reason why I don't like "The Cricket."
Considered a recreational activity back home and not much more and we even have Michael Phelps who keeps a bong in his locker as part of his training regimen. Make no mistake about it, Aussies are pissed that we have Phelps. If there is one sport where Australia dominates on the international scene, it is swimming. 95% of the population lives within 50 km of the ocean, an ocean that is home to sharks and a whole other assortment of things that think you look tasty, you would be good at swimming too.
The first Tuesday of every November, Australia shuts down for a public holiday completely dedicated to one sporting event, The Melbourne Cup, Australia's largest thoroughbred horserace. Is it absurd to stop an entire country for a whole day, solely to watch horses run around a track for about three and a half minutes? That's not for me to say, but I will never object to taking a day off of work, and Aussies will never object to a good reason to get pissed. Additionally, arguably Australia’s most beloved and well known "athlete" is actually the horse Phar Lap, a giant in his time. Phar Lap's mounted hide is now the most prized exhibit at the Melbourne Museum. His massive heart is on display in Canberra at the national museum, and his skeleton is on display in New Zealand (he's a Kiwi by birthright, shhh!). Rumour has it that Phar Lap was "whacked" by U.S. mobsters when he crossed the pond via an unhealthy dose of arsenic, but this is just speculation.
I had no idea what netball was upon arrival. In fact I was shocked at how such nice-looking parks could have such ghetto basketball hoops that don’t even have a backboard. I eventually saw a televised netball game and put two and two together. Netball is essentially basketball without dribbling or a backboard. It is played primarily by women, in a "roller derby" like fashion, (read, not your "cry at a broken nail, more likely to bash your face in" kind of chick). The sport has really only caught on in New Zealand and Australia, but is definitely worth a watch if you can go to a game or at a park.
Other sports of note in Australia
Tennis – Melbourne hosts the Australian Open in January. Arguably the greatest tennis player of all time is Australian Rod Laver.
Surfing - Surfing is ingrained in Aussie culture. They churn out world champions like nowhere else. Plus, surfers are the epitome of cool (read: author wishes he was an Aussie surfer).
Lawn Bowling – Only if you are an octogenarian, "older" or part of the groundswell of hipsters taking up the sport. My first bedridden day in Australia I had the unfortunate TV viewing options of either Oprah, cricket, or lawn bowling. I narrowly chose lawn bowling over Oprah. Big mistake IMO.
Sport is religion in Australia. As a nation Straya' regularly produces the most Olympians per capita in the world, at a rate of just under 1:50000, and are always near the top in the final medal count. But more than that, sport is weaved into the fabric of Australian culture. Sports heroes are hailed as demi-gods, supporters proudly display tattoos of their favorite teams, and the entire country can be put on hold to watch a single event. Sure, some of their sports are weird, others are boring, and some are just plain confusing, but spend an evening in an Aussie sports pub and you will soon find yourself singing along with the blokes to their favorite footy team's anthem.