If you cast your sporting mind* back to the 1980s and ’90s – and I often do – you might recall just how white Australia’s athletes were.
Put bluntly, Australia’s professional sporting constituency was exceptionally Anglo-Saxon. Despite various waves of immigration over the years – the thousands of Chinese that came in search of gold in the 1850s, the displaced European migrants who appeared on our shores in the post-WWII era , the Vietnamese boat people that arrived in the late 1970s, etc – Australia’s elite athletes were yet to carry surnames boasting obscure, foreign-sounding letters like X, Z and Y.
In fact, “we” would often bestow monikers on our overseas-competing athletes, such as “the great white hope,” in order to accentuate their whiteness. Similarly, Aboriginal players – noted for their speed and agility – were often given nicknames (not just from fellow players, but by the media, too) based upon their mercurial style of play, unpredictability and ‘other-ness’ – as opposed to their mental discipline or cognitive skills.
Michael ‘Magic’ O’Loughlin springs to mind.
Anyway, let’s look at a few sporting codes and how they have evolved over the past 20 or so years, in terms of their demographics.
Rugby league in the 1980s and ’90s was a white man’s game. Generally, your forwards were big, burly and mustachioed, with dependable one-syllable names like Len, Sam and Les; your outside backs were lean, wiry and mustachioed, with slightly-less-intimidating-but-still-very-dependable names such as Glen, Garry and Peter. The halves and five-eighths, meanwhile, were diminutive, hovering around the 5’8″, 5’9″ mark and weighing some 70kg ringing wet. Jason Taylor, Geoff Toovey, Allan Langer, etc. Small blokes, often with alarmingly blonde hair.
But fast-forward to today and we can see how immigration and globalisation has changed the (literal) face of rugby league. And it’s only going to continue: well over half of the players in the NRL’s under 20 competition are of Pacific Islander extraction, with some (not this publication) referring to this phenomenon as a brown revolution.
This evolution has occurred at a rapid pace – so rapid as to initially cause lovable rugby league commentator Ray Warren some well-documented pronunciation issues. However, Warren can now effortlessly reel off names like Ava Seumanufagai and Sam Tagataese without blinking an eyelid.
And we, too, have adapted to this “new normal.” After all, as James Cook University’s Peter Horton says:
“Pacific Islanders have become the most prodigious and prevalent ethnic group of rugby sports migrants globally. They’ve become “exquisite ‘products’ and… prime commodities, as they are now a major force in the leading competitions worldwide.”
That’s true. Pacific Islanders dominate New Zealand’s national rugby union competition too. And why wouldn’t they? Their bodies are suited to the rugby codes. Jason Taylor and Allan Langer could not exist in the modern day NRL; not through lack of talent, but more because they would simply get fucking smashed if they took a single hit up.
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The Australian cricket team is often criticised for its lack of diversity. Just recently, the test team celebrated the debut of its first Muslim player, Usman Khawaja, while Pakistan-born asylum seeker Fawad Ahmed has played a handful of international T20 fixtures and received a lot of column inches based on his heart-warming story of overcoming adversity.
But these outliers aside, the Australian test team is pretty much as white as it was under Allan Border in the mid-1980s. Cricket is a colonial sport – not necessarily a global sport – in that most of the countries that play cricket do so due to England’s desire, in the words of Marcus Clark, to reinforce a hegemonic cultural order in the face of emancipation of the relative slave populations.
So cricket hasn’t reached continental Europe, or the Americas – or Asia, for that matter – and thus we are yet to see Greek, Baltic, Latin or Chinese names (with the exception of some admittedly excellent state players) force their way onto Australia’s professional cricketing scene. The few cricketers with foreign names that do “make it” are from cricketing nations like Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, with their fathers likely teaching them the fundamentals of the game as juniors growing up in their (middle-class) sub-continental homes.
I’d allege that the non-British migrants who arrived here in the post-war period – and of course, those following that period – did not see cricket as a code overly welcoming to outsiders. Instead, they exposed their sons and daughters to other sports – ones that welcomed all regardless of background.
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So cricket is white, primarily. But emerging sports (read: sports that have been popular in Europe for years but are only just catching on in Australia) such as soccer, basketball and tennis, are drawing from the healthy pool of first/second/third-generation European migrants.
Look at the Australian Open right now. Nick Kyrgios, Thanasi Kokkinakkis and Bernard Tomic are the “future” of Australian tennis. There is no-one else on the scene, certainly, there is no conventionally white Australian youngster that looks likely to challenge for a top 10 position over the next few years.
You only have to go back to the late 1980s and 1990s to remember what Australian tennis looked like. It was really, really white: Pat Cash kicked things off in the late ’80s; Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge were unstoppable both as a doubles combination and as an advertisement for male grooming. Pat Rafter was beginning to make a name for himself in the singles, while Lleyton Hewitt, his blonde Aryan appearance the stuff of Hitler’s fondest dreams, was just a few years away.
But now – and not just only on the men’s side – we are seeing a new wave of second generation European migrants dominating Australian tennis. Is it their hard work and determination, perhaps first forged by their ancestors in post-war Europe, that has led to this emergence? So where has the ‘white’ athlete gone – and do we even miss him?
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You could argue that given the majority of white Australians draw their racial heritage from Britain, the decline of the white athlete is inevitable. Just look at how terribly England has performed at sport over the past 30 years. Even in cricket, the game they invented as a way of imposing their culture upon the colonies, they have gone to shit (despite a very brief window of success recently). As England declines as a global powerhouse, so do its people.
Shall I be somewhat borderline reverse-racist and proffer that the white athlete has simply evolved to completion, both physically and intellectually? Is he/she now simply resigned to playing a stable, dependable role in their chosen sport, to rely on inherent experience (forged through their ancestors having ‘invented’ the code and perhaps a greater level of coaching as a junior) rather than explosiveness, raw power and X-factor?
As Australia’s globalisation and immigration policies continue on their merry way, despite the best efforts of this fucking guy, we will see more and more brown faces dominating typically Anglo-Saxon sports. And the attributes they bring will no doubt enhance our various codes. It cannot be long before recent waves of African migration result in greater representation in the AFL – indeed, it’s already starting to happen – and our domestic soccer competition.
Today, cricket is the only sport that remains conspicuously white. Nothing against the current crop of players, but here’s hoping that in 20-30 years from now that Australia can tap into its growing pool of migrants – and maybe pluck out a few gems.
* SportingMind was a niche blog run by this author circa 2008-09. While exceptionally obscure in content, it received mostly positive feedback and served as something of a prequel to The Public Apology.