This sporting life
Veteran wit John Clarke analyses the origins of Aussie sport to produce a fascinating slice of social history, writes David Pougher
IT’S a brave man who takes on a project that dissects Australians’ love of sport and the reasons we are so passionate about it.
And if that man happens to be a New Zealander, there’s a chance there’s some madness behind the bravery.
But that’s the task actor, writer, comedian and satirist John Clarke ( pictured) set himself in Sporting Nation, a series that examines not just how we connect with sport and its heroes, but why.
Part two of the three- part series airs tonight, showcasing Australia’s attempts to come to grips with the dawn of professional sport, the 1976 Olympics in which we won not a single event and the explosion of television sport.
The Australian sport story can perhaps only be told by someone who has observed our obsession from outside before joining our ranks.
Clarke was born in Palmerston North but moved to Australia in the late 1970s. He’s always been fascinated by our relationship to sport as we went from amateur over- achievers post- war to bewildered also- rans as the world went professional in the 1970s and emerged again as big hitters in the 1990s.
Mixing archive footage, his own acute and sometimes laugh- out- loud observations and interviews with greats such as Dawn Fraser, Herb Elliott, Cadel Evans, Murray Rose, Raelene Boyle and Kieren Perkins ( among many others), Clarke has produced a fascinating and hugely entertaining piece of social history.
‘‘ Talking about sport is a bit like taking one of the most concrete principles, but when you discuss it, you discover it’s a will-’ o- the- wisp and it’s different things to different people,’’ he says.
‘‘ It’s such a cracker barrel of different things, a sort of prism that we can look through at the history of the country, certainly post- war.
‘‘ The thing about this program is that although it’s partly historical and ultimately an investigation of the ideas in sport, I hope that although we’re telling this story with these wonderful people who are intelligent and eloquent and authoritative, it’s also a program that people project into and get something out of themselves. It’s not just about those athletes, it’s about all Australians.’’
Clarke was delighted to find some of our greatest sporting heroes were equally curious about the reasons they did what they did and how it resonated with society.
It’s an indication of how important sport is to us that Clarke has two former prime ministers on the program: Malcolm Fraser, who established the Institute of Sport after Australia failed to win a gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics; and Bob Hawke, a noted sportsman himself and someone who understood the synergy between Australians and sport.
But as you’d expect, it’s the athletes who steal the show and Clarke has an anecdote that illustrates the competitiveness that underpins our sporting greats.
‘‘ One of the people I spoke to told me that when they built the Olympic swimming pool for the Sydney Olympics, they had a bit of a press call and they got Shane Gould, Dawn Fraser, Murray Rose, Ian Thorpe and some others to swim a lap together,’’ Clarke says.
‘‘ So they had a bit of a meeting beforehand and said, ‘ What are we going to do, shall we swim a 32- second lap?’ But a couple of them said, ‘ That’s a bit fast. Let’s do a 35- second lap’.
‘‘ So they got down on the blocks and said we’ll do ‘ ready, set, go’.
‘‘ They did ‘ ready, set’ and Dawn dived in and went like buggery. She was fierce.’’ SPORTING NATION ABC1, tonight, 7.30