Despite the high profile of sport in Australian culture, the historical analysis of sport in this country has not attracted much coverage, whether in terms of academic research, media interest, or the reading public. Australian sport fans are eager to recount glorious performances by the nation’s teams and athletes, and they certainly indulge in eulogistic books and magazines about sport. But these enthusiasts have comparatively little knowledge about, or interest in, Australian history and the role of sport in shaping its evolution. This is, in large part, a reflection of inadequate education: in many schools history has been supplanted as a key area of study, with the Australian story conveyed as part of broad brush subjects like ‘social studies’ or ‘civics and citizenship: Moreover, at university level Australian history is typically taught with scant regard for the explanatory potential of sport and physical culture. Too often, sport has been relegated by Australian academics to the ‘toy department’ rather than the history department where, incidentally, there are few scholars for whom sport is a serious focus of research (Booth 1997; Adair 2002). This is illogical, because sport can provide important insights into themes and issues that have been pivotal to the evolution of Australian culture. Indeed, as this chapter indicates, sport historians have carved out areas of research that contribute ably to the study of Australia’s past. The following discussion is a thematic overview of Australian sport history with a focus on three pivotal areas: national self-image through sport, norms of sport participation, and the involvement (or otherwise) in sport of so-called minority groups. Together they provide metaphorical windows through which to try to make sense of Australian society and culture, and the role of sport in their historical evolution.
Australian self-image through sport
According to historian Geoffrey Blainey (1966), Australia has been cursed by the ‘tyranny of distance: As a British colonial outpost it was literally on the other side of the world, and, particularly before air travel and electronic communication, this meant separation from the so-called motherland. Sport was one way in which Britain and its colonies, whether in Australia or elsewhere, could be connected. It was, as both Daly (1982) and Cashman (1995) have averred, part of the cultural baggage of migrants – particularly those who arrived as free settlers in the second half of the 19th century. Efforts to establish race tracks, cricket fields and rugby pitches were part of the colonial drive to recreate – even if in the