Feb 13, 2015

The Object Of My Sporting Affections

While the Australian summer has served up no end of sporting delights, I have been finding it difficult to be enthused. In a tragedy of Grecian proportions, I have found myself falling out of love with sport. The 2015 Australian Open was, objectively speaking, an entertaining competition with upsets, crowd favourites, home-grown heroes, veterans and upstarts. But I could barely watch a game. I love cricket in all forms. But the Big Bash League is the target of much of my derision. To my eyes, all professional sport has been corrupted by money, drugs and the desire to be “entertainment”. I am only seeing my love’s flaws, not that which made me fall in love.

Facing such a test of my ardour, a potential solution presented itself. Novak Djokovic served to Gilles Müller’s backhand. When Müller slapped the return past Djokovic’s forehand for a winner, the beaten Serb applauded. In terms of loving sport, there were two pertinent actions in this moment. Müller’s shot demonstrated the physical beauty in sport of executing a skill perfectly. And Djokovic’s sportsmanship highlighted the mutual respect that exists between opponents attempting to beat each other in a sporting contest. It is only fitting that a potential solution was highlighted in a sporting moment. Perhaps by focusing on the aspects deserving of my affection I could pull myself from the funk.

Australian Open tennis at Melbourne Park

I turned up to pre-season footy training last week. In my 35th year I thought there was little that would surprise me as 20-odd guys gathered to prepare for the Central Australian Football League’s 2015 season. In the kick-to-kick before training, my partner kept trying to mark the ball with only his right hand. I inquired as to the health of his left only to be informed that it was functioning as normal. I was later told my kicking partner was on day release from a local institution. Although it crossed my mind that my new team-mate might not be the full box-and-dice, I considered his predicament. One thing that he must have missed about a free life was being able to go to footy training. Only sport could make him feel normal. And only sport could give him the sense of fun that must be entirely absent on the inside.

The Asian Cup was a revelation for Australian football. Preceding the event, much was made of how little it had captured the collective Australian imagination. That Australia was out of form and ranked beyond 100 in the world did not help. Fast-forward a couple of weeks and Australia won the final in extra time. The Socceroos appear to be a representative team that is devoid of personal ego. With the notable exception of Tim Cahill, the players seem to be low-profile. The player of the tournament was little-known Australian Massimo Luongo. They each perform their role within the team as best they can and seem to understand that representing Australia is a privilege that could end at any moment. Even this cynical Australian is proud to be represented on the field by a team such as this.

Football at Melbourne's rectangular stadium

I am excited about the cricket World Cup which is about to begin in Australia and New Zealand. While interest in 50-over cricket has been declining rapidly, the World Cup is still a competition that teams genuinely want to win. And players genuinely want to play. In contrast to the BBL where retired “stars” cash in for the purposes of entertainment, the World Cup will only contain the very best players in the world. And those players are often at the peak of their powers. Sport is at its best when two high-quality opponents are doing their utmost to win. Each time India visits Australia for test matches, there is an asterisk next to the result for there is a widespread belief India only really care about tests in front of their home crowds. Certainly this will not be the case for any team during the World Cup.

In some corners, the Tour Down Under is criticised for not being the Tour Of Australia. While there is almost certainly better cycling in other states, the South Australian government created an event that the Australian cycling community loves. From humble beginnings in 1999, the event has grown due to its popularity with spectators and cyclists. On television the racing and scenery pales in comparison to the Tour de France, but evidently the live atmosphere is something to behold. A non-cycling person was in Adelaide coincidentally and somehow found themselves watching the People’s Choice Classic. They were impressed for two notable reasons – the speed at which the pros whipped around the circuit and the atmosphere they felt part of as a spectator. In an era of over-hyped events that fail to live up to the marketing, it is refreshing to see the Tour Down Under thrive organically.

Cyclists corner during a criterium in Melbourne

Perhaps it was always to be this way. When my knowledge of sport progressed to include some unsavoury aspects, perhaps it was inevitable that my love would waver. Perhaps this has been the case with lovers of sport for millennia. (I can picture in my mind’s eye a cynical Bugler amongst the crowd in the Middle Ages, disappointed because the current crop of jousters don’t seem as authentic as those of his youth). Perhaps my method of focusing my attentions on the aspects that I love will be a success. More likely, my love will remain but will not be the same. But I also see love growing anew elsewhere. The mini-Bugler has begun to catch and throw. He identifies the cricket and tennis on television and watches enthralled by the players running, throwing and hitting. His will be a love that I encourage. For although my love is not the same, I will always recall the good times and know that sport was always worthy of love.

Dec 17, 2014

A Friendly Game Of Sport?

Increasingly, professional sporting bodies are agonising over the size of crowds. After over a decade of chasing the money associated with television rights, attention has returned to a simpler popularity measurement. This has led to commentators waxing lyrical about the relative merits of watching a particular sport on television as opposed to live. It has also meant a great deal of analysis about the “spectator experience”. But, as is their wont, most associated with a sport tend to focus more on the merits of their particular game and less on the social aspect of sport.

A batsman cutting a ball for the boundary

During the 1970s and 80s, cricket was enormously popular. World Series Cricket became a phenomenon thanks to the new and exciting limited-over version. Much is made of the brand of cricket being played, but little is said about the social circumstances of the time.

For those who were fortunate to own a coloured television, screens were small, reception was poor in areas, and the broadcast offered little extra for the viewer. It was relatively inexpensive to attend games and punters were allowed to bring their own food and drink. This made for a cheap, enjoyable and social afternoon and evening at a game of cricket.

Fast-forward 30 years and the social circumstances have changed dramatically. Televisions are relatively cheap and the quality of the image and sound has improved astronomically. Similarly, the broadcast contains numerous facts, replays, analysis that could overwhelm an occasional viewer.

 A cricketer resplendently stands at the non-striker's end

Stadia the country over have become more draconian in their enforcement of regulations and restrictions. It is almost as though the sport-going public should feel privileged to be allowed in to watch a game of cricket live.

Put simply, it is much more enjoyable to pack a picnic and an esky and go to a friend’s house. You can watch the game in high definition on television and not have to put up with overly officious security at the few stadia allowed to host international cricket games in Australia. Consequently, it is increasingly the Australian way to host a BBQ in the backyard in summer with the cricket on a big screen rather than attend the game.

What is true of our summer sport is not so true of our winter sport. The average crowd at the footy in 1987 was just over 21,000. In 2010 this number had grown to 38,423. No doubt AFL honchos would conclude that their “product” is superior to cricket’s. But while it is enjoyable to sit on a grassed hill in summer and watch sport, watching footy in the cold, wet mud of winter is less so. The dramatic improvements in facilities for fans benefited the winter game in a way it did not for cricket.

The crowd looks on at the MCG in a game between the Richmond Tigers and the Sydney Swans

In more recent years, the AFL has been shedding fans at games. The 2012-14 average crowds were as low as they have been for over 10 years leaving administrators with similar concerns to cricket’s. While the specifics are slightly different, the fundamental reason could be the same – the experience of attending live has become poorer than watching on television.

The homogeneity of stadia and teams makes attending a game of AFL the same Australia wide. It matters little who is playing or where, the live experience is the same. The experience is becoming boring. This is increasingly true when factoring in the games against meaningless franchises for which we have no passion. At least we can press mute when advertising comes on the television. And we can switch off or go chat to someone in a pub if the game becomes boring.

Perhaps the last straw for fans was the increasing “noise” at AFL games. For unfathomable reasons, every break in play is no longer a chance to chat to a friend. On-ground announcers, advertising, “popular” music, betting updates and similar absurdities bombard the casual fan making conversation almost impossible. So the fan is left with a choice – run the gauntlet of the homogenous stadium with punch-in-the-face advertising or sit at a friend’s house with some nice food and refreshments and watch the game in high definition?

The crowd looks on in the Murray Football League Grand Final between Moama and Mulwala

One sport that seems somewhat immune from the worries about attendances is horse racing. The sport is so reliant on gambling that crowds matter little. As long as more liberalised gambling opportunities increase profits, the VRC will pay little heed to crowds.

Even when large crowds do attend the races, people are not there for the sport. The large crowds at Flemington and Caulfield go for the social occasion, to put on their best attire and consume with friends. The horses add but a distraction. Nevertheless, crowds are falling at the races too. Since reaching nearly 130,000 in 2006, crowds at Flemington’s most popular carnival day, Victoria Derby, have fallen. This year, a shade over 90,000 attended. A dramatic drop.

Watching the horses race at Dunkeld can be a wonderful experience. Mt Sturgeon provides a stunning backdrop to the gorgeous racecourse. Fewer than 15 years ago it was possible to turn up to the Cup in early November with a picnic rug, food and refreshments. As it became increasingly popular, authorities became more draconian. Now people are carefully shuttled into class and price defined areas. There is little room left for a picnic. BYO is a thing of the past. Security is a constant. Prices have risen. Perhaps this quiet western district town provides a neat analogy for the events at racecourses in Victoria’s capital. Little wonder crowds are falling.

The horses are but a distraction for the crowds at Flemington Racecourse

There are good reasons for limiting the amount of booze people can drink at sporting events. Advocating a return to the lawless days at the cricket when play was regularly interrupted by drunken fools is not the point. Similarly, a return to the wet and wind of VFL Park in Waverley is clearly not desirable. But somewhere there is a happy medium. There must be a way in which punters are allowed to attend and be social while still enjoying the live sport. Administrators would be wise to find this happy medium before they play soul-less games at life-less concrete stadia as is occurring in the Sheffield Shield and at GWS Giants games.

It seems a lifetime ago, but just over 10 years ago I attended three sporting games. The first was a Sheffield Shield game between Victoria and New South Wales. The game was at Punt Road Oval and, with no Australian team playing, contained Steve and Mark Waugh, Glen McGrath, Shane Warne and Paul Reiffel. I paid a modest entry fee befitting my student status and sat on the hill with some friends chatting and watching the game. One Sunday, I saw a World XI take on Victoria at the Junction Oval. Entry was free and we stood on the outer side recalling our weekend’s activities. A friend organised a ticket to watch St Kilda and Fremantle at Princes Park. We sat where we wanted and discussed our sore bodies from our activities on the field the day prior. The three have much in common – they were convenient, low-key, and cheap. But what made them enjoyable and memorable is that I sat watching a game of high-level sport while chatting with friends.

Nov 5, 2014

Horses Carrying Much More Than A Jockey

Two horses died following the running of the 2014 Melbourne Cup. The first to perish did so dramatically. Admire Rakti began the race as favourite following its triumph in the Caulfield Cup. Less than 30 minutes later it lay dead in its stall. The Japanese horse appeared to be fine going into the final straight but then faded to finish last, walking past the finishing post. Initial reports have suggested the horse suffered a heart attack. The second to die, Araldo, suffered a regrettable misfortune. Spooked by a white flag waved too close to its nose while returning to the mounting yard, the horse reared up and hit a fence. The seventh-placed horse had to be euthanised as the break to the pastern was deemed irreparable.

Predictably hysteria ensued. There were those that advocate an end to all horse racing. But equally there were those that trotted out the naive and tired line that racehorses live an idyllic existence, free to gambol in lush green fields and pampered by their loving owners. Both points of view ignore the harsh realities of the racing industry and its role in modern life.

Mr Majestic sprints to the line through the mist

Initially I was pleased that Admire Rakti did not perform as expected. Although I had included him in a couple of my bets, my collects were far more lucrative if the favourite didn’t finish in the top three. As I happily calculated my winnings, I gradually become more interested in the horse that finished last as it became clear that he would be the big story of the day. I must admit to a macabre engrossment as I felt the horse’s death bring into focus the intimate details of horse racing. Enough with the froth and bubble of the fashions on the field and the bottles of champagne, take a look at what is happening in the real world.

There is an implicit hypocrisy practiced by those, including myself, who expect and want a horse to win yet prefer not to see the animal injured or suffering. How much is too much? We want the horse and the jockey to take risks, to muscle for position. But we don’t want the jockey to take too many risks lest they become another fatality. We want the horse to be ridden hard in the home straight. But not too hard, and with not too many strikes of the whip. After all, we have the best interests of the horse and the jockey at heart.

But the degree to which we want the horse and the jockey to suffer and take risks is an extremely grey area. It becomes greyer still when our level of investment, both emotionally and financially, changes. Had I gambled more than my usual $20-$30, I might have been more willing to see the horse suffer for the win. If I had invested a large proportion of my year into importing a horse from Japan and preparing it to win the Melbourne Cup, perhaps I would like to see my jockey take a few more risks. It is very difficult to remove emotion and say it is ok to whip a horse with a forehand motion five times during the race (excluding the final 100m), but the horse will be suffering too much if you do it six times.

The horses approach the string to start the race at the Kiwanis Charity Cup Race Meeting, Port Vila, Vanuatu

What is seen during a race is but a heartbeat in the life of the horse. A great many people devote a great many hours in stables the world over so that horses are prepared for races of all different stature. Largely, the race-going public has very little idea as to what occurs during preparation. In the more successful stables, methods are a closely-guarded secret lest competitors get an advantage. It is pertinent that Racing Victoria employ veterinarians. A veterinarian’s job is to inspect stables and perform out-of-competition blood and urine testing. On race day they complete pre- and post-race checks and tests. Implicitly, Racing Victoria are saying that not all trainers can be trusted with the welfare of their horses. If the lives of the racehorses were as idyllic as we are told, veterinarians would be largely redundant.

This point about a hidden world can be made another way. A continuing defence of a high-profile drug cheat was that the health risks of using PEDs was too great and after surviving cancer it would be stupid to take the risk. But he did. And he is a human. Horses are also given medications. Where would we, the race-going and betting public, draw the line between appropriate medicating and cheating? Where would Racing Victoria draw the line? Where would a veterinarian? Where would a trainer with his livelihood on the line? In 2003 six elite cyclists aged between 16 and 35 died of heart attacks. How many fit, young racehorses are dying of heart attacks?

Horses head off down the back straight at Numara Eliya races

Banning horse racing is patently absurd. It is akin to public transport advocates calling on cars to be banned. What would we do with all of the horses/cars? How would we compensate and transition the trainers/mechanics into a horse/car free society? What would happen with the existing economies? How would we control a black market in racing/driving? The task is so large as to be impossible. We will continue to drive cars and race horses for the foreseeable future.

A ban on racing would also unfairly impact a great many owners, trainers, jockeys, farriers, and veterinarians who genuinely love animals, are concerned about the welfare of horses and treat horses impeccably. While I am sure that not all racehorses live a bucolic existence, I am also sure that a large equine number do. Removing the ability to raise money from racing would undoubtedly have a negative impact on the welfare of numerous horses. Quite correctly, a number of people have pointed out the inability of animal welfare activists to provide for the welfare of horses should racing no longer exist.

In fairness, the RSPCA, Animals Australia and the Coalition For The Protection Of Racehorses do not call for a blanket ban on horse racing. Assuredly some of their members do, but the organisations draw attention to some of the lesser-known facts of horse racing. They also call for a ban on jumps racing and a ban on whips. The methods that they use are sometimes confronting. I have no doubt that they would prefer an animal uprising à la Dana Lyons’ classic Cows With Guns, but until animals can advocate for themselves these organisations will see it as their duty to publish shocking billboards.

The crowd looks on at the Kiwanis Charity Cup Race Meeting, Port Vila, Vanuatu

The solutions to the complex problems arising in horse racing are not clear. The perfect storm created by economics, speciesism, fatuousness, greed and vice are but a microcosm of modern life. Perhaps if we were able to solve problems in racing we would be able to create utopia. There are two things I could suggest to improve on our dystopian world. The first is with ever-greater money should come ever-more scrutiny from both the media and officialdom. The second? Ignore the D-grade celebrities, marketing marquees and sundry veneer, they only serve to obscure a world we may not be proud of.