Mar 11, 2017

An Ocean-less Barbarian

It seems an odd place to contemplate surfing, but oddly enough the last few weeks in Alice Springs I’ve spent yearning for the ocean. The dry heat makes one think wistfully of powerful waves crashing hard on rocky shores underneath grey skies heavy with the threat of rain. The monotony of endless sun and blue skies makes one think longingly of being curled up in front of a warm fire as the ocean sings its powerful and endless song. On another day with no cloud and temperatures soaring, I finished a book I won’t forget for some time – Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan.

Surfing a beach break at Cape Le Grand, Western Australia

For those more erudite than I, it would have been no surprise that Barbarian Days was such an incredible read. Finnegan has won an number of awards throughout his successful career as a journalist. For 30 years he has been writing for The New Yorker on topics such as apartheid South Africa, immigration and drug trafficking in Mexico, wars in Mozambique and the Sudan, economic affluence and poverty in modern USA, and, of course, surfing.

For Finnegan, writing about surfing seemed to be inconsequential compared to his more socially valid journalistic topics. Nevertheless, he produced an autobiography that managed to be at once entirely about surfing but also not. For although surfing is ever-present in Barbarian Days, it is but a canvas on which Finnegan paints his life story.

For me, the most poignant chapter of the book was when Finnegan wrote about his time in San Francisco. He wrote of his ambivalence about his desire to continue surfing. But ultimately he couldn’t resist the call of the waves despite the cold, murky water and the gnarly waves of Ocean Beach. As throughout the book, the spectacular descriptions of surfing served as but a metaphor for the phases of life. His time in San Francisco marked the end of his peripatetic days of his 20s when he searched for waves the world over. Instead, he studied the ocean and tried to understand his place in the world as he forged his career and stabilised his personal life.

A crowded lineup in Noosa, Queensland

The cold water of northern California was in stark contrast to Finnegan’s previous phase. With a friend, Bryan di Salvatore, Finnegan travelled the Earth searching for perfect waves. He wrote romantically of an unspoiled South Pacific. The warm waters of Hawaii, Tonga, Fiji, and Tahiti were devoid of surfers and resorts. He wrote of an egalitarian Australia and a laid-back Gold Coast, something we once were but are certainly no longer. They travelled to south-east Asia and found authentic experiences in Bali, Thailand and the Philippines. His search for waves spoke of his own rapture and euphoria of being young and unshackled.

My own experiences with surfing have been laced with frustration. Unlike Finnegan, my youth in Burramine South was far from the ocean. Nevertheless, it was easy to relate to his boyish joy at catching his first wave in southern California. I could inherently understand the way in which he used surfing to integrate himself into his high school community after his family moved to Hawaii. Finnegan speaks a universal language as he describes his life transitioning from childhood, to adolescence, through adulthood and beyond. His writing of surfing serves as a prism through which his life is laid bare.

Clean but small waves at Pirates Bay, Tasmania

Part of my being I’ve never understood is a desire to test myself against fear and my own limitations. As Barbarian Days progressed, it became clear that this was also true of Finnegan. He found bigger and heavier waves. He wrote of collisions with rocks and coral reefs, of being held under by breaking waves, of the fearful sound of water collapsing on itself with a thunderous crack. Even with the birth of his daughter, the desire to surf continued unabated. The psychological reconciliation of Finnegan’s risks and responsibilities was traversed without being entirely resolved.

The other psychological aspect to which I could relate was the mediative aspect of sport, particularly when physical danger is involved. The ability to live in the moment seems directly proportional to the gravity of your personal well-being. When trying to execute an intricate skill with the pressure of an enormous and angry wall of water or an equally enormous and angry opponent, clarity of thought is extraordinary. Suddenly the worries of the world beyond those immediate have disappeared. I can imagine that chasing stories through war-torn Sudan would require hours in the ocean to dissolve the recurring memories.

It was the beauty of the book that struck me throughout. It seems as though Finnegan has lived a magnificent life because of the richness that surfing gave it. The countless hours he spent conversing with other surfers about aspects of weather, swell, board shape, and all manner of intricate details of his chosen sport only added to the fullness of his autobiography. Frankly, it was inspirational and self-affirming to read of the minutiae of Finnegan’s surfing. It wasn’t the money he made, the awards he won or the clothes he wore that counted in his life story, it was the colours of the ocean, the shared experiences with friends, and the shape and motion of the waves that created beauty in his life.

Scratchy surf in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka

There was no over-arching plot line flowing through Barbarian Days. No inexorable march to a foregone conclusion. Merely a disparate search for another wave. A complex tumult of emotions and experiences throughout a common theme. Although not a surfer and over a thousand kilometres from any sea, Barbarian Days left me enthusiastic about where my personal search for the perfect wave will take me.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life – Amazon

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life – The Guardian review

Oct 30, 2016

Remember Rio? You know, the Olympics?

It has been two months since the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics and it is difficult to recall a Games having so little impact on this sporting nation. Prior to the Games there were the usual concerns with building progress and social problems in a foreign nation. People were scared of the Zika virus, pollution in Guanabara Bay and Russian dopers. During the Games the sports proceeded as usual – there were medal winners, there were losers, there were dopers and there were world records. But did the Games resonate with the Australian public? And has there been any lasting impact in Australia from the Games of the XXXI Olympiad?

Disclaimer: the author of this article is not without bias. The tyranny of distance from the mainstream of Australia, and an ever-increasing scepticism of the Olympic has continued to grow and blossom. What follows must bear this in mind.


Nearly 30 years have passed since the men’s 100m final at the Seoul Olympics. Australians have become far less naïve in the intervening period. Almost any medal awarded at an Olympics comes with a burdensome proviso. The Russian scandal prior to the Games did little to restore faith in the purity of the sport. In fact, the scandal was met with an indifference and an apathy that spoke of a deep-seated distrust of the cleanliness of Olympic athletes.

When speaking of the men’s 100m, it is worth recalling that the entire board of Jamaica’s Anti-Doping Commission was forced to resign at the end of 2013. This was due to the “public perception” of the existence of conflicts of interest and a lack of drug-testing due to insufficient staff to complete a rigorous regime. It took until mid-2015, only a year prior to the Rio Olympics, for JADCO to begin performing blood-testing. The World Anti-Doping Agency have been impressed by the improvements to JADCO since the start of 2014, but it is an interesting story in lieu of Jamaica’s dominance of the shorter track events.

Criticism of anti-doping efforts should not be limited to nations with limited resources. At the Rio Olympics, 500 fewer tests than intended were carried out by the World Anti-Doping Agency. In some sports, including weightlifting, no blood-testing was carried out at all. The IOC’s report describes an under-resourced and under-funded anti-doping regime perhaps more indicative of a poor island nation. Not an organisation that turns over $6billion each Olympiad.


Australia’s long-held obsession with swimming can be easily explained – we have traditionally won medals in the pool. We love winners. But swimming hands out far too many gold medals – a total of 32. In athletics, there is gold medal for the 100m sprint but not the 100m hopping or the 100m running backwards. And the rest of the world is catching on – all you need is a couple of great swimmers (Michael Phelps?) and you can take home a veritable mountain of metal. In Rio, Australian athletes disappointed in the pool.

The David Crawford-led Independent Sport Panel Report estimated that each gold medal was costing in the order of $15million and each medal $4million. The report noted that the Australian Sports Commission overwhelmingly directs monies toward elite Olympic sports. It makes sense that we would spend money on sports, like swimming, where we think we have the best chance of winning medals. But where does the distribution of funds become corrupt? As an example, water polo received as much money as golf, lawn bowls and tennis combined. More government money was given to the archers of Australia than the cricketers, despite there being over 100 times as many cricketers. It is easy to imagine swathes of golfers, lawn bowlers, tennis players and cricketers jealously ignoring the Olympics.

Participation rates and funding is a controversial area. Smaller sports can quite rightly claim that basing funding on participation will result in a narrowing of possibilities. But when the funding is for the “elite” of that sport rather than the rank-and-file participants, this argument hangs by a thread.

Let’s talk fencing. In Australia, excepting those fine, upstanding persons who erect partitions, there cannot be too many fencers. In comparison to golf, it must be a relatively short road to the top. Fencing, not the one with barbed wire, gets an amount of funding from the Australian Sports Commission as it is an Olympic sport. Now the Australian Fencing Federation (check out their website, there are fewer gates than expected) spend that money disproportionately on the “elite” fencers at the expense of your average, garden-variety fencer. Our “elite” fencers didn’t make the Rio Olympics. To turn an argument on its head, no new fencers were inspired. Perhaps a few lost interest. So why exactly are we funding our “elite” fencers? Send them to the Northern Territory, there is a heap of land up here that could use a fence.


My fellow university alumnus Kim Brennan wrote an impassioned article for Fairfax wondering why Australia wasn’t proud of our athletes. Although she raised some excellent points about national pride and a better Australia, Brennan misses the mark. For a start, Australia is proud of our athletes especially on an individual level. Our Olympic athletes are already supported. But valid concerns are being raised about the level of that support. To be blunt, if somebody wanted to subsidise me so I could be a professional exerciser I hope that I would be absurdly grateful and wouldn’t be comparing myself to a rural doctor, single parent or research scientist. I hope that I would recognise the limits of my inspiration. And I would be thanking my lucky stars my hobby wasn’t in the arts.

Prior to the Games, Chef de Mission Kitty Chiller said the 410 Australians at the Olympics were aiming to win 15 gold and 45 medals overall. Australia’s best golfers didn’t bother with the Olympics and, due to Chiller’s hardline and almost martial stance on team rules, neither did our best tennis players. Subsequent to the Games, Chiller was proud of the “culture” established within the Olympic team. This is not a comment on the rights or wrongs of Nick Kyrgios’ or Bernard Tomic’s behaviour, but Chiller’s “culture” was unfortunately not one that won medals in spite of her stated aim. So what is it that the Australian Olympic team is trying to do? Are we aiming to win medals? Or are we aiming to have a team of people who toe the line and do as they’re told by rigid team management? Or are we aiming to have the perfectly legitimate and reasonable goal of a team that doesn’t necessarily win, but our nation is proud of the way they competed and represented us nonetheless? Note – this last goal probably doesn’t require an Australian Institute of Sport, in fact it would possibly be more achievable without it.


The embodiment of Chiller’s culture was, somewhat paradoxically, gold medallist Chloe Esposito. I don’t pretend to know a great deal about Esposito, but coincidentally our most recent modern pentathlon champion also embodies the Rio Olympic Games for me.

In Esposito we have, from all reports, a lovely and humble person who almost nobody had heard of prior to the games. She participates in one of the Olympic’s most obscure sports, made up of five mostly-obscure events. This sport has a shockingly low participation rate in Australia. With much self-sacrifice, including financially, Esposito invested an extraordinary amount in the Olympics, aided and abetted by the largesse of the Australian Sports Commission. She wins gold and there is a momentary kerfuffle. Less than two months later if you mentioned her name, the response would most likely be “Chloe who?”. Further, despite being a stellar person and a gold medallist, Esposito will have made almost zero lasting impact on the participation rates of young Australians in modern pentathlon. Wow. I can’t wait for Tokyo in 2020.

Oct 10, 2016

How Much For A Heinz?

It is difficult to quantify a person’s contribution to a football club. A traditional metric for players is to count games and celebrate milestones. But this tends to over-simplify the devotion, commitment and genuine love players have for their club, and that clubs have for their players.

Nowhere is this more apt than for Uni Blues’ Dirk Heinz. For while Heinz strode the field for the 200th time in a Blues jumper, his contribution to the club has been far, far greater.

Dirk Heinz surveys the Main Oval at Melbourne University

Instead of games, another way to measure a person’s contribution to a club is in time. 13 years have passed since then Under 19 Coach Tim Giles parked Dirk at centre half back against St Bernard’s. A young Heinz was dubbed “The Markologist” as he proceeded to grab everything that entered his vicinity.

“Intercept grabs, contested pack marks and the odd diving chest mark.  He had both ends of JJ Holland Park covered,” is how great friend and fellow Blue Matt Torney describes Heinz’s marking feats.

Another teammate, Tom Rankin, also thoroughly enjoyed Heinz’s marking abilities.

“As a midfielder, racking up stats with Heinzy in the team was a piece of cake. Makes for a good day when the guy who takes 10+ marks a game says ‘just run past and I’ll handball it to you’,” Rankin recalled.

Perhaps an unorthodox method of measuring a player’s worth is by counting the number of nicknames. Although a little unusual, the number of nicknames potentially represents the value that player has in his teammates’ hearts.

Heinzy, Diggler, Derek, Dick, CJ, Big Cat, Danny Tran, Domingo El Casillas, Four Goal Heinz, the Settler, Sven. Although some were self-appointed, this catalogue of nicknames point to a personality that others flock to. Together with his brother Jack, Dirk has entertained his teammates with impersonations that create an upbeat, vibrant and happy club.

Lovable, selfless, genuinely caring, riotously funny, are just some of the words others around the Blues have used to describe Heinz.

“Dirk has always had the respect of the playing group,” Torney said. “He is a friend to many and his efforts to try and keep the club’s spirits up especially during times of disappointment have been valued by all.”

The number of injuries footballers sustain are also a measure of a player. In this case, Heinz is no exception. Uni Blues’ president Joe Sturrock was surprised that Heinz made it to 200 games.

“It wasn’t because I didn’t think he was good enough, but more because of the way he plays and the fearless nature with which he goes about his footy,” Sturrock said. “I didn’t think his body would have lasted.”

Dirk Heinz celebrates on the Main Oval at Melbourne University

Rankin commented on his ability to relentlessly run backwards into packs and still come up with the ball. Torney concurs.

“There were times when Heinzy would fly blindly back into a pack, or dive on a ball that he had no right to compete for, that I feared for his life,” Torney said. “But sure enough he would emerge, battered and bruised, but with ball in hand.”

But, as ever, Heinz showed his commitment to the cause with hours in the gym developing resilience necessary to last all these years.

An easy way to calculate value is assigning a monetary value. In Dirk’s case, $50.

Heinzy’s grandfather, the late Jack Coventry, would watch Dirk play more often than not for the Uni Blues. In Jack’s later years his eyesight began to fail. But it mattered not as he still took up position in the Pavvy to listen to the sounds of the game that his two grandsons, Dirk and Jack, were participating in.

After each game Dirk would be slipped a $50 note by his grandfather so that he could enjoy the night “with the boys”. This beautiful and endearing moment speaks volumes for the type of person Dirk is and the type of family he comes from. It also speaks to the impact Dirk and his family had on Uni Blues and vice versa.

On the topic of family, perhaps the most unusual method for measuring Dirk’s contribution to Uni Blues is in sausage rolls. Not goals mind you, literally sausage rolls. The Heinz family, led ably by grandmother Eunice, have generously donated over 28,000 homemade sausage rolls to the Blues’ infamous afternoon teas over the past 13 years. An incredible number.

But this unusual measurement risks under-valuing the contribution Dirk and his family have made to Uni Blues.

Dirk’s parents, Karin and Tony, have donated an extraordinary amount to the Blues. Both are a fixture at games with Tony often called upon to put his general surgical skills in practice. Karin has been a tireless contributor who never asks for a thing in return. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see her working the canteen one minute, rubbing shoulders with players the next, and catching up with her many friends a few moments later, such is her devotion to her sons and the club they play for.

“Dirk has been one of the best exponents of what it is to be a Uni Blues footballer,” Torney says. “At a club where community and contribution are king, Dirk has been peerless.”

Uni Blues Matt Torney and Dirk Heinz celebrate a premiership win

Club president Sturrock agrees with this assessment of Heinz.

“Dirk is one of the best clubmen that I have known in my time at the Blues,” Sturrock said. “He is never one to sit back and let others do the work. More often than not he is the first to put his hand up and organise things off the field.”

Heinz has regularly organised the club’s social calendar. He has been MC at the Blues Ball on a number of occasions with his good friend and teammate Torney. He has sat on countless committees and offered his legal expertise when required.

By any measure, Dirk Heinz’s contribution to University Blues has been profound. After taking to the field for the 200th time in Blue and Black, he should be applauded long and loud. Not just for his games tally or his efforts on field, but for what he has given and continues to give for his beloved football club.