Federal Politics


Politics, players, power of sport

The sport that so many of us watch over summer is not just relaxation but a window into Australian society and politics.

Party politics may not have overtly intruded into our lives much over the summer (Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have been relatively quiet), but through sport we can't really escape the big political and social issues unless we choose to be blind to them. Pick any political issue and you will find its expression in sport, whether it be elitism versus mass participation, government expenditure, economic development, gambling, gender, disabilities, health, child sexual abuse, drugs and commerce and industry. The issues come in all their glory and contradictions, their heroes and villains.

Sport is not just about the players, the competition and the spectacle. You can't avoid the power and the politics.

Sport is embedded in Australian society. Not surprisingly, Australia Day, including the Australians of the Year awards, reflects sporting as well as other achievements. The chairman of the Australia Day Council is the former champion cricketer and all-round sporting hero Adam Gilchrist. Many of these heroes, such as Pat Rafter and Richie Benaud, continue to be honoured. Commentators such as the late Tony Greig are farewelled like few others.

But we also can't escape the celebrity villains, such as Shane Warne, and on the international scene, Lance Armstrong. There are also those who speak out bravely, such as Jessica Bibby, on gender imbalance in basketball, and George Bailey on media politics in cricket.

There are many social and political themes that have their sporting equivalents, which mirror and sometimes lead social trends.


Sports glory in traditions and past achievements, but at the same time struggle to adapt to or to contain social change.

There are differences between the sports, too, in how they cope with the battle between recognising past glories and celebrating the present. Cricket is one sport in which the past is often elevated above the present. It has an icon in Don Bradman, who keeps many present-day achievements in the shadows. The modern players are measured critically against the greats of the past.

Tennis, on the other hand, while recognising the past greats - many of them Australians such as Rod Laver and Margaret Court - is unabashed in counting Roger Federer as perhaps the greatest male player of all time. The superior skills of the modern players such as Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic are also celebrated wholeheartedly.

Associated with the battle between past and present is the struggle to adapt to technology - not just new equipment such as racquets and bats, but new means of checking umpiring decisions in cricket and tennis.

The political economy of modern sport has many elements. Sport makes fortunes for some players but, more importantly, it makes bigger fortunes for its owners and operators and for the media. The media chase modern sport and pay big dollars for the rights to telecast it because it is often essential to commercial media success.

Sports are always chasing sponsors and advertisers, and they are successful in doing so not just because corporations are socially responsible but because they want to attach their products to sporting publicity. Consequently, no follower of professional sport can escape being embroiled in intrusive advertising, not just for motor cars, mobile phones and insurance, but also for fast food and vitamins.

Not only is it impossible for viewers to avoid the advertising but often that very advertising is being conducted by the present and past players who are role models.

The networks also relentlessly and intrusively advertise their own programs. So the commentators pick out among the crowd not only actors who star in their future programs but players in network winter sports such as the various football codes. It all becomes very circular.

There is also relentless advertising of gambling, though communities consider it creates social problems. Whether it is tennis or cricket, most events publicise gambling with implicit approval. Sports followers are encouraged to gamble.

The big sports also generate competition between cities, states and venues - all in the name of growth. Several of Australia's biggest venues are building sites at the moment. Smaller cities are constantly trying to buy new teams and new sports.

The players are in constant competition, too, of course, and are torn by the disjunction between the commercial market for their talents and traditional loyalties to nation, state or club. The benefit of this competition may be new levels of excellence for their fans. The downside is these players are often locked into an upstairs-downstairs culture in which the top players are rewarded and the lesser lights fight for survival.

Industrial relations within sports are fraught. Administrators, like politicians, are pushed around by bigger forces, such as economic interests and the media. Only the favoured few can speak out without fear because, like Warne, they have become untouchable. Others, such as Bailey, can be bullied by sports media executives for speaking out and are told they are just cannon fodder who otherwise might be ''flipping hamburgers at McDonald's or working in a coal mine''.

Sport can be a generous donor to charities and can bring untold enjoyment to sports followers like me. But modern professional sport is also a major industry with all the politics, power, dubious ethics and media manipulation that goes with it.

>> John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.