Saturday, December 4, 2010


Bad news for sports fans this week - Australia won't be hosting the World Cup in 2022.

What's significant about this isn't that we missed out but rather that it demonstrates, even to those who don't follow anything apart from sport, that our role in the world isn't quite as significant as the boosters like to suggest . . .


First of all, let's celebrate what we do brilliantly. We're pretty good at digging resources out of the ground and then selling them off to other countries. We’ve done this well since the gold rush of the 1850s. After that, the list of triumphs and achievements begins to slow -- if you exclude the successes of our athletes. Take, for example, our triumph in the most recent international sporting competition in India six weeks ago.

Australia is one of only six countries to have attended every Commonwealth Games (or only four if you don’t count pretend countries like Wales and Scotland). On ten occasions our team have been the highest-scoring competitors, including at the recent Delhi games. The AIS has a deserved reputation for churning out winners, allowing us to bathe in the reflected glory of our athletes laurels. The problem is a dichotomy quickly reveals itself between the glorious headlines and the mundane reality lying underneath.

On Thursday night a tiny crowd of 300 or so gathered to watch the result of the FIFA ballot being broadcast live at Sydney's Circular Quay. They apparently expected to hear the word Sid-en-ney being mangled again. After the announcement their reactions alternated between anger and blank incomprehension. Many obviously couldn't understand how our bid had been overlooked, let alone treated with distain. Instead of turning out to be a trump-card, the video of a cartoon kangaroo had apparently inspired derision. People muttered about corruption; how the vote was "fixed". It's impossible, seemingly, to accept that the rest of the world might not share our own vision of Australian excellence in all things.

And this is why the ignominious dismissal of our bid to host the soccer World Cup hurts so viscerally. Humiliatingly, Australia’s bid received only one vote out of 22. The country was eliminated in the first round. Our hopes and aspirations were so effortlessly flicked away, with such cursory distain, that it revealed an embarrassing and fundamental mismatch between the reality and our dreams. It turned out that we were never in serious competition after all. Not that it matters that we won't be hosting the world's "most watched" athletic event in twelve years time. This is just a (minor) blow to those who hoped to elevate soccer's significance in the pantheon of sporting endeavour. Success would have been essentially irrelevant to our lives. Not that you'd know this if you listened to the hype.

Although the Greeks were the first to really embrace games, the athletes competed as individuals, not as representatives of some larger political entity. It was the Roman emperors who were the first to discover the political advantages of using sport and games as a distraction. As the civic institutions declined into irrelevance and the wealthy engaged in ever-more ingenious orgies of bacchanalia, the masses were kept docile and amused by the gladiatorial contests that passed for games in their day. There is a political advantage accruing from such diversions. People become obsessed with the entertainments and tend to gloss over the far more significant contests that really determining the true shape of the world.

Such as another bit of news that came in from overseas yesterday, although you're forgiven if in all the brouhaha about the World Cup you missed it. The children's fund UNICEF pointed out that Australia is failing the most vulnerable members of the community. Ranking performance in a table of 35 measures, including health and education, this country was demonstrably below average in more than half the comparative measures. Not for everyone, of course, just those who happen to be in the lowest socio-economic groups. Could this be same country that has just devoted more than $45 million of public money in a failed attempt to win a sporting event?

The best performing countries were the usual suspects: Denmark, Finland, Holland and Switzerland. There’s no great secret about what creates progress and positive societies -- it's just that we can't be bothered making the effort. The World Bank estimates that the per capita GDP for all these countries is relatively similar to our own. The difference is the way we choose to spend and distribute our money. In its analysis of the way wealth is distributed, the CIA notes that our society is far less egalitarian than the others. Although we are less unequal than ancient Rome, for example, there was always the possibility then that the slaves might be freed when the master died. The chances of an Australian bank similarly discharging a mortgage are negligible. Hence the need to keep the entertainments coming.

Instead of critical self-analysis we reassure ourselves that everything will be OK. Tourism, for example, continues to plumb new lows. Over the past decade it's collapsed from 13 percent of exports to just eight percent. The advertising campaign featuring Laura Bingle has, unsurprisingly, done nothing to turn that around. Who knew it wouldn’t be a masterstroke to ask people why the bloody hell they hadn't bothered to come? Perhaps the answer was because even Australians don't want to spend their time at home. Our own overseas travel has surged by a massive 80 percent in a decade. Domestic stays have reduced by nearly a tenth in the same period.

Tourism Australia has come up with an answer which revolves around a new strategic approach aimed at gouging more money out of each traveller. New opportunities for tourists to spend much, much more money at so-called luxury destinations may prove attractive. It’s worth noting alternative natural attractions, in places like Africa, might also have the advantage of being cheaper for foreign tourists. That's the trouble with the resources boom. Being able to swim in money might be an advantage for a mining magnate, but it’s hurting other parts of the economy. Yet we’re not saving the money from selling rocks and investing in the future. The rising dollar is now about to cripple an education industry that’s already staggering after accusations of pervasive racist violence lurking beneath the surface of our society.

It's no surprise that the number of Indian students has collapsed nearly as quickly as the tourist trade. The soaring dollar has focused people's attention on the rival educational offerings provided by Europe and America. Despite the hype about our uniqueness, the wonders of our natural beauty and the advantages of a relaxed lifestyle, it's important to understand that not everyone views this country through the same lens that we do.

There is an urgent need for the government to engage the community and challenge our perceptions. Unfortunately, there's no indication that it is prepared to do so. As a result we can expect another decade of "surprise" results, such as the FIFA vote or when we fail to make it onto the UN Security Council in 2012. Our reputation in the world isn't very high at the moment.

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