What has happened to Australian sport?

By Paul Hayward

A decade ago sport Downunder was at its zenith but decadence and self-absorption have set in. Discipline, though, can put Australia right, writes Paul Hayward

Australian sport has taken a pummelling in recent times, including the Wallabies against the Lions last weekend, but the Aussies can never be written off. Photo / Getty Images
Australian sport has taken a pummelling in recent times, including the Wallabies against the Lions last weekend, but the Aussies can never be written off. Photo / Getty Images

A guilty summer pleasure is to watch an Australian Ashes side bouncing on to English turf during the first test and experience trepidation, even dread - this lot are an unlikely national rescue crew in a dismal phase for Australian sport.

Most Baggy Green teams come to impose the nation's character. They trot out with tails up and teeth flashing. Michael Clarke's side carry the unwanted extra burden of national saviours after a year of poor Olympic returns at London 2012, a huge doping scandal in the macho heartlands of league and Australian rules and a first series defeat to the Lions in rugby since 1989.

Only 10 years ago, when Australian sport was at its zenith, the artistic director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Edo de Waart, accused his country of being sports obsessed at the expense of the arts and culture.

Professor Richard Cashman, of the University of New South Wales, fired back: "Sport has helped promote our symbols, emblems and colours, based on Australian flora and fauna, and has contributed to a burgeoning national consciousness.

Sport played a role in the coming of federation and in the process of nation-making after 1901."

This was the age of Cathy Freeman, Shane Warne, Ian Thorpe and the brain-like glow of the Australian Institute of Sport, which was routinely praised for cracking the code. If British sport beat itself with one stick, it was the absence of a comparable repository of wisdom, where a super race of skilful and indomitable Aussies would keep sport and the national identity forever entwined.

Australia were world champions at league and union and Pat Rafter was briefly world No1 in tennis. The Sydney Olympic Games cast Australia as a confident outdoor nation where sport expressed the country's youth and vitality. Warne was the national wizard and larrikin. Allan Border, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh were the hard-faced executioners who oversaw eight consecutive Ashes series wins over England.

Well, the dynasty fell. From 17 gold medals in Athens in 2004 and 14 in Beijing four years later, Australia collapsed to seven golds and 10th place overall in the London 2012 list. At the start of the year a Crime Commission found extensive evidence of institutionalised doping and links to organised crime. "The blackest day in the history of Australian sport" ripped the romance out of Aussie machismo.

Ricky Ponting, the last of the pugnacious cricketing generals, had presided over three Ashes series defeats by the time he gave way to Clarke, the only current tourist who has played in a winning series against England, who have not been so heavily fancied to annex a series since 1978-79, when Australian cricket was in disarray.

The juxtaposition of Pommie success and Australian turmoil was put to Clarke in the Trent Bridge pavilion. He swiped it away. "Are you afraid?" he was asked. "What, of Andy Murray?" he said. This was his way of saying: you can win as many tennis matches and rugby tests as you like but this is the Ashes and we come to fight.

After the Lions' triumph in Sydney, Australia impaled their New Zealand coach, Robbie Deans. At least he made it to the end of the series. On this Ashes tour Mickey Arthur was downed two weeks before the Nottingham test, less than four months after Shane Watson, James Pattinson, Usman Khawaja and Mitchell Johnson had been dropped for a test against India for failing to complete a homework assignment on how the side could improve.

Sounding like Yoda from Star Wars, Darren Lehmann, who subsequently took Arthur's place, tweeted at the time: "Adults we are, not schoolboys!"

Australia, who lost Ponting to retirement in November, then Michael Hussey in January, were whitewashed 0-4 by India, then descended into disciplinary chaos, with David Warner collecting a $7000 fine for haranguing the journalists Robert Craddock and Malcolm Conn on Twitter, then throwing a punch at England's Joe Root in Birmingham's Walkabout bar, thus earning another fine and a suspension until Trent Bridge.

The lesson, if there is one, is that success is not automatically self-perpetuating, however much cash Australia pumped into its Institute of Sport, and however much the team of Warne, Waugh, Adam Gilchrist and Glenn McGrath terrorised world cricket.

Maybe Australian sport thought new talent would keep being born out of the sense of extreme national wellbeing that prevailed for a decade either side of 2000.

Only six years ago Ponting's men wiped the floor of the outback with England, inflicting only the second 0-5 defeat (the first was in 1920-21).

But England have won three of the last four Ashes series and could make it five from six if this back-to-back programme falls their way.

A universal truth exposed by the current convulsions is that unity and discipline are non-negotiables in Australian sport.

There is both a decadence and self-absorption about current Australian sport that will be corrected by public anger, if the right people are placedin charge. England will be hoping that they leave it all alone tofester.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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