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My life in sport, or how I learnt to think about sport

It took a long time to recognise my love of sport, and longer still to acknowledge it.

The girl on the left won every "event" and refused to share her prizes with the other kids.

The earliest evidence of the author’s life in sport- her 8th birthday cake, an Olympic swimming pool

As it kid, I wasn’t remotely self-conscious about it. I loved Kieren Perkins from the minute I heard him tell his story on an ad during Saturday Morning Disney in the lead-up to the 1992 Olympics. I spent my pocket money on posters of him from Book Club. My 8th birthday party was Olympics themed. When he won his second gold, unexpected, from an outside lane, on my 12th birthday, it felt like it was just for me.

I got a bit older, and we moved to the US. As a teenager, my concept of self was pretentious, even for a teen. I discovered a love of history young, and I’d proudly display classic books on my dresser, bought at a “funky” second-hand bookstore and never read. I struggled through Tess of the D’Urbervilles the summer before 9th grade, and would proudly bring it up in conversation, however tangential the connection. I sewed historical costumes and wrote poetry and went to see foreign films. I was a thinker, dammit, and I had the stuffy bedroom to prove it.

But I also had a secret. Behind the clothes in my walk-in wardrobe hung a poster of Alex Rodriguez. Above that sat a box of newspaper clippings: Mariners scores from the local paper, and news of the Australian cricket team, sent by a loyal friend back home. These things were hidden away so they couldn’t encroach on the neat concept of self I’d created.

Some time around the time we returned to Australia in 2000, I started to face the truth. There were momentary slippings of the veil: when I heard the story of Tadhg Kennelly, and or once again watched my favourite cricketer, Michael Bevan, weave his absolute magic with the bat.  But the watershed moment came during the Sydney Olympics. I’d railed against them as a waste of taxpayer money (Where is this celebration of the Arts?! I’d ranted. What if we invested all that money in education?! I’d raved. I’d even calculated the percentage of Australians of the Year who were athletes, written out the list, and posted it on the fridge in disgust). But, sitting at Olympic park, watching on the big screen and screaming as Ian Thorpe came second to Pieter Van Den Hoogenband, I realized this thing that sport made me feel was incredible. It felt honest. I couldn’t deny it anymore.

And so, with a heavy heart at first, I stopped hiding my love of sport in my wardrobe. On reflection, some of my early efforts were quite funny: that summer, I started a collection of letters titled “Letters to arrogant, overpaid athletes, written during moments of psychological weakness.” The old pretentiousness wasn’t going to die easily. The Australian Open got me through surgery that January, and I added a letter to Sebastian Grosjean to the collection after his five-set capitulation to his best friend Arnaud Clement set me back weeks in my recovery.  While studing Hamlet and Rosecrantz and Guildenstern are dead, we were required to write a feature article on one of the themes of the play, offering another example. I wrote about The Ashes as revenge, got the best mark of my high school career, and knew my path was set.

I wasn’t a thinker after all: I was a sport fan. And I was all in for a life in sport.

**

You can't see it, but I'm actually wearing a dress I made from the French flag. You can, however, see I got the flag wrong in my face-painting. I blame the mirror.

The author with Sebastien Grosjean in 2001, just prior to starting her Sport Studies degree

As soon as I learnt the University of New South Wales has a Sports History program, from a single photocopied pink piece of paper I’d picked up at a University fair, it was the only option. I knew I wouldn’t struggle to get the marks, so I never really considered anything else. I’d go and study Arts/Education, spend a couple of years reading and writing about sport, then do the useful thing and become a teacher. The practicalities were irrelevant, despite the fact it was a 3-hour trip on public transport from home and I couldn’t afford to move out. The first time I stepped foot on the campus was the day I went in to enroll. Sport alone had brought me to UNSW.

A moderately successful first year under my belt, with its sport-free generalist subjects and a year more of fully owning my passion for all things sport, I finally got to enroll in Australian Sport: History and Culture in my first semester of second year. I bought the textbook as soon as I knew what it would be, and had read it cover-to-cover before the first lecture. I was initially disappointed that I didn’t have the lecturer as my tutor, but that would ultimately prove to be more fortuitous than I could have anticipated: the next year, the lecturer would move on, my tutor would remain as the sole sports history teacher at UNSW. He’d become something of a mentor.

I was an enthusiastic student, to say the least. And I made no secret of the fact I loved sport. When I first encountered writers critical of sporting culture generally and of sport administration particularly, my reflex was to defend. Over the course of the semester, I realized I had to approach sport critically in order to be an even passably-decent sports historian. I found some of the writing about gender and sport interesting, and with more than a touch of truth about them. I was still firmly in the camp of optimist, but once seen, it could not be unseen. The seeds were sown, but for the time, I remained a cheerleader.

And it was here I first properly encountered Australian Rules football. I’d been something of a sporting everyman going in to the course- cricket, rugby, tennis and swimming had taken my particular fancy recently, but those were by no means set in stone.  After our study introduced me to the fascinating history of Australian Rules Football, my passing interest in the code, which to that point had mostly been in the career of Tadhg Kennelly, was piqued. I took my younger brother and his friend to see the Swans play the Bombers at the Olympic Stadium. I was bored: it was an uninspiring game. But I went back to Olympic Stadium about two months later, mere days after the rest of my family had moved to China and left me to fend for myself for the first time. When the second-placed Swans lost to the fourth-placed Magpies, I cried without knowing if I was crying for the game or for my family, and my loyalty was won. From now on, it was AFL first.

What I hadn’t anticipated, as a high school student entering university for the first time, was how contentious the study of sport was, how the faculty looked down on it. After external funding dried up in the post-Sydney-Olympics era, the program was being wound down, despite the fact it was a significant moneymaker for a department that always struggled financially. Study abroad students flocked to the courses, bringing with them their high fees, but that fact alone could not save Sport History. In my honours year, the program was gone entirely, and the Law faculty, recognizing an opportunity, introduced a Sport in the Law general education class, and picked up all the Study Abroad cash the History department had decided it would do without.

The academic criticism of sport studies usually focused on the ephemeral nature of sport, and that sport studies wasn’t sufficiently critical. The first criticism is difficult to entertain, given the important place sport has in Australian culture, but there was grain of truth to the second. Some scholars was sports fans first and scholars second. Though far from the majority, these few tarnished the reputation of sport studies. Unfortunately, I was one of them.

My honours thesis was meticulously-researched, a history of interstate attempts to promote Australian Rules football in Sydney before the VFL went national. Meticulously-researched, but suffering from the same lack of criticism and reflection that plagued me throughout my degree. While I continued to play the role of cheerleader, my supervisors, official and defacto, were more than willing to correct me on it, even if I often ignored their advice. My second class, first division was thoroughly deserved, for the work wasn’t what it should have been, even if that pains me now because it limits my future study options. Thesis in hand, I was done, and unsure what was next.

**

One semester of prac teaching gave me no doubt that the “education” part of my degree was a mistake, so I’d dropped it about eighteen months earlier. Now, I was just a plain ol’ BA (Hons), with a goal and not much idea of how to get there. When people asked what I wanted to do, I told them I wanted Stephen Brassel’s job- he was then the Media ad PR General Manager at the Sydney Swans. In the meantime, I went full-time in my then part-time job as a nanny, tried to write a beginners guide to Australian sport, and tutored in Australian Sport history at UNSW, which the History department has reluctantly re-added after the financial consequences of its snobbery had become apparent. I encouraged my students to apply a critical approach to thinking about sport, but at the same time waxed lyrical about the virtues of our games.

Looking back now, I’m amazed at how confident and enterprising I was in those days. I told everyone about my ambitions, I wrote emails, letters. And it worked: I was amazed at the number of people willing to help me out. I had a chapter in a book selected to be in a book about Collingwood. I wrote a couple of articles for an Irish newspaper. And then, in a series of wonderful coincidences that started when someone spat on me, I got an offer to write part-time for an online sports media outlet. Covering the Sydney Swans.

That was in March. From there, it snowballed. By May, I was writing for another outlet under a pseudonym. By June, I’d applied for a job in the Swans’ Communications and Marketing department and in July, two weeks before my 23rd birthday, I started in what could only be described as my dream job.

At the time, without any kind of stability or the financial wherewithal to survive life as a freelancer, it seemed entirely to take too long to go from part-time writer to full-time employee. On reflection, it was an absurdly short period of time between the moment I turned in my thesis and the day I started at the Swans. I’d been so focused on getting to this place for so long that I didn’t at all stop to think about whether it was the right place for me, or whether I was equipped to handle it, either practically or mentally.

And the truth is that I wasn’t. I realized pretty early I didn’t belong.  Those two concepts of myself I’d long held in opposition to each other, the thinker and the sport fan, were about to clash in their long-overdue battle. But the simple fact was neither of those part of me fit the job. I was required to write articles about the players, and to interview them, and I was still entirely too star-struck to do so effectively. I never fully got over that. But the job also required me to toe the party line, and to put a positive spin on everything. After years of being trained to think through the implications of sport, however much I’d resisted the training, I now found I couldn’t help it.  The gender issues I’d previously thought about briefly became consuming. I worried about wasting my life on something that didn’t matter. I worried I was being taken advantage of by a system to exploits you for your passion. Plus, I felt like a big ol’ nerd in a posse of cool kids. I didn’t belong.

I lasted 15 months. Then I gave up the job I’d dreamed of for years. Around the same time, my heart was broken by a fellow Swans fan. It was all too much. I decided to put football away.

My life in sport was over.

***

In my last few months at Swans, I’d started reading a lot about American politics, and became slightly obsessed with it. So, fresh in my new, non-sport job, which paid me almost double what I’d been earning for almost half the work and- bonus- made me feel like I was contributing to something greater, I enrolled in an MA in US Studies on a whim.  I spent the year fully immersed in that world and the new friends I’d made through the program. University felt like home: I was encouraged to think through the complexity of issues. In studying politics, no matter how strongly you feel about a particular philosophy, it’s hard to do well if you’re a cheerleader. I was finally able to exercise the academic discipline that eluded me as an undergraduate sport fan.

I followed the Swans loosely still, but it was my sport sabbatical, my time away.  When September and finals rolled around, despite the fact it was the first time since ’03 that the Swans didn’t play in September, I tentatively dipped my toe back in the water. At the end of the year, I went to DC to intern in US Congress for a couple of months, and happily talked footy to no end with the Victorians on the program. While I was there, I wound up giving a talk at Georgetown’s Centre of Australian and New Zealand Studies on Australian sport history. Like going for a first run after a time off, my muscles slowly limbered, and I found my stride again.

In 2010, with newfound perspective and a heart mostly recovered, I returned to sport wholeheartedly. I started attending Swans games again. I worried it would never feel the same as it did in those heady days of 2005, when the thought of missing a match made me sick to my stomach. And the truth is, it never did. I could never be as consumed and naïve and devoted as I was then.

But I wept openly when we won the 2012 premiership, and I knew them I could still love it, it would just be a different love, a more critical love

While at this point, I had fully embraces my return to being a bystander and fan, I DID hide from my previous colleagues as I indulged my inner fan, and desperately hoped the veteran players didn't remember me

The author with Swans midfielder Josh Kennedy on the night of the 2012 Grand Final

**

Lately, almost five years after my return to civilian life, I’ve started to feel the pull of writing about sport again. It’s different this time, though. It’s filtered through my experiences of sexism and incompetence in sport culture. It’s informed by disillusionment and misplaced allegiances and the perspective you can only really get by being away.

When the Australian Crime Commission report was released last week, with its revelations that doping is rife in Australian sport, the sport fan in me was sad, while the sport academic in me was unsurprised and felt slightly vindicated. It showed, more than anything has before, how essential a critical approach to sport is. It shows why we need sport studies. It shows why we need to encourage a genuinely analytical approach to Australian sporting culture.

I went back to my thesis recently, with the idea to edit it and maybe make it available as an e-book. Re-reading it, I realized it contains a grain of something really important about sport, power and identity, but I didn’t have the distance at the time to see it for what it was, to see how it fit into a broader picture. My concept of myself as a sport fan had become so consuming that I stopped properly thinking about sport. I have this idea now that I might completely re-write it, to turn it into a broader reflection on sport and power and culture. On why sport fans feel the need to prosthelytize, sharing the truth of their chosen code. On how, like most people with power, sports administrators often act to protect and expand their power, at the expense of those who don’t have it. On why political theory might have something to offer our understanding of sport. It’s just an idea, but it’s one that won’t go away.

So maybe my life in sport isn’t over after all.

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