‘Sport – it’s part of who (some of us) are’

  Sporting Compass: With Dr Pippa Grange and Paul Oliver

Dr Pippa GrangePaul Oliver

As a sports psychologist and founder of Bluestone Edge, I am fortunate to have many conversations with people about the substance and meaning of sport.
My colleague Paul Oliver also engages with people at all levels across the sporting sector to keep his finger on the pulse of the latest news, views and issues.

In this space each fortnight, we will share some of these stories, insights and possibilities in relation to people, culture, ethics and leadership in sport. I hope you enjoy the conversation and we look forward to hearing your thoughts.

All the best, Pippa and Paul


‘Sport – it’s part of who (some of us) are’

12 November 2013
Category:   CULTURE – what’s the story

Sport in some societies, like the UK, New Zealand or Australia, has long been embedded in the culture and hard to separate from the national identity, especially when it comes to national-level competition – the recent London Olympics has only served to cement this further. The winter weekends in any of these countries also sees millions of fans avidly following their football team with a sense of belonging and a deep investment in what ‘our’ result is against a common adversary. Sport seems to be an important factor in how some people see their lifestyles and their identities.

Sport plays an iconic-symbolic role within Australia, which is played out around events. The Melbourne Cup horse race (a race that stops the nation), the Boxing Day Test Match, the Australian Open Tennis, the Formula One Grand Prix, the AFL and NRL grand finals – all populate the Australian calendar, monopolize our local news and are structured into our day-to-day language and communication (we take ‘a punt’ on something, we get an ‘early mark’, we let ‘one through to the keeper’ etc.). Back in England this week, I see the red and white of the St George cross flag spilling out of pubs and cafes, with advertisements for England games in rugby league and rugby union. It’s not so different in terms of pride on the national stage. Sport can unite us in common, uncomplicated and even trivial passions, unlike most other things in our communities.

I think many of us see sport as essential to our identity because it gives us a way to be unique and quintessentially ‘Aussie’ (or British or Kiwi or whatever), and to be admired and considered an equal on the world stage. There has always been a romanticism about sport to Australians especially – an enduring love affair with our cricketers, swimmers, boxers, footy players and tennis players (until recently that is!). When we’re winning our collective mood is buoyant; when we’re losing morale is low and heads droop a little lower around the nation’s office water coolers. It is somehow personal. We are proud or embarrassed in equal measure depending on the national sporting result. I feel the same pleasure and pride when someone shows interest and admiration for Aussie sporting prowess as when they comment on the extraordinary natural beauty of the place; ‘I wish I lived there’….

In a place like Australia, sport is also deeply connected to our own lifestyles; not just as fans, but as local participants. It dominates many weekend schedules in households with children particularly, and perhaps even more so in country towns than urban areas. One of the great upsides to this is that it can give us a way of being connected beyond other boundaries or differences that might usually separate us – like race, culture and ethnicity, gender, professional identity or socio-economic status. Our sporting clubs are central elements in community life and play a key role in facilitating friendships and social networks. As Australia’s leading demographer Bernard Salt said, sport ‘delivers social inclusion and, importantly, social resilience. It builds connectivity in society’ 1. In its own way, sport can act as a form of ‘social glue’, connecting and binding communities together.

Sport is also very important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and those from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CaLD) backgrounds in Australia. It can provide a vital pathway to improving physical, social and economic wellbeing, and often provides a vehicle for integration and belonging in the community.

Sydney Swans star Adam Goodes, a man very proud of his Indigenous Australian heritage, describes Indigenous identity in the following way: “It’s not about a map, not a town or a community you can stick a pin into and say “that’s home” because it’s not about a place. We all come from different places and different experiences, yet we come from the same place inside. What we have is a knowledge. A culture. And an understanding borne of being different in skin colour, which in Australia means far more off the football field, but that’s where people like my teammate Micky O’Loughlin and I get to express our Aboriginality”. 2

Belinda Duarte, Director of the Korin Gamadji Institute, said that evidence and activities that celebrate contribution or engage communities where they feel a sense of pride and a coming together on something that is positive and not connected to sorry business was critical in embracing a sense of belonging and celebrating identity. She referred to sport as a religion common to all Australians. 3

Many migrants and refugees have found that participation in sport has helped them establish social networks and integrate into the community. AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou certainly agrees: “To many people football is a fantastic introduction to life in this country. People may not share the same language, same beliefs or same heritage, but they can join together and certainly share the same passion for a football club,” he said.

However, it is not automatically the case that sport is a force for good. It has (and still is in places) also been used as a divide, an elitist, separatist forum for exclusion – particularly along racist and sexist lines. It should be acknowledged that sport has both assisted and resisted the rights of Indigenous people and those from a CaLD background in Australia. As sports author and Director of the Australian Centre for Olympic Studies, Richard Cashman, argues: ‘If Australia was indeed a paradise of sport, it was more so for some Australians; for men more than women, and Anglo-Celtic Australians more than other immigrants and Aborigines’. 4

For me, sport is a gift; an opportunity that we can choose how to use as a means of cementing our values – national and personal. If it showcases national identity, what do we want to showcase? What commitment does each of us make to representing, evolving and renewing that identity? If it is a deep part of our lifestyle, how will we continue to invest and protect that lifestyle? One thing is for sure – it won’t happen without our intent.

Dr Pippa Grange



1 Bernard Salt, Changing Ethnic mix has implications for women in Australian sport, in Sports Business Insider, 8 October 2012.

2 Adam Goodes in Emma Campbell’s ‘Relocation Stories experiences of Indigenous Footballers in the AFL’, 2008, p19.

3 Jillain Mundy, ‘Sport is vital, inquiry hears’, in Koori Mail, 12 December 2012. Refers to Belinda Duarte’s submission to the House of Representatives Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs inquiry into the contribution of sport to Indigenous wellbeing and mentoring, June 2013.

4 Richard Cashman, in ‘Sport and Australian culture; Historical perspectives’, by Rob Hess, 2011, p4.




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