An old photograph that surfaced from a dusty library many years ago speaks as loudly as anything could about early Australian sport, and its long trek from the way we were – in sport and society – to what we became. The rare photograph almost certainly belonged to the great Sydney sporting journalist Tom Goodman, a pioneer in the business who wrote about virtually anything that moved on the sporting fields of Sydney and beyond.
The 1909 pic captures a confronting image of the imposing EW O’Sullivan, a whale of a man who was president of the Rugby League through a period in 1909, and who in this photo consumes what seems three-quarters of the wooden seat at the Old Agricultural Ground (Sydney Showground).
The photo in question is a bruising commentary about the changing nature of both sport and society. O’Sullivan has his back rudely turned to Bella, one of two female guides who accompanied the pioneering Maori team.
The playing fields and the games played on them were most certainly not women’s territory back then. In team sports at least it took the best part of 100 years to change, but change it did, to the extent that in the evolution of sport in that time, the emergence of women’s sport has provided the most revolutionary change of all.
To old scribes like us, educated at all-boys schools and initiated into a rough and tumble sporting world of all-in brawls and stiff-arm tackles, the introduction of women into games that were once considered all-male pursuits ranks surely as the most significant global sporting change of the twenty-first century.
And it’s not just that the panorama has widened and deepened as the young women of Australia dabble in games such as Australian football, Rugby, Rugby League and the rest – the reality is that they are so good at them, in some cases world dominant. The public has enthusiastically embraced this change – via large crowds and big TV ratings – in a way that was once unimaginable.
In the time that we have covered sport in Australia, going back to the late 1950s, change has been spectacular on many fronts. When we started, sport was a Saturday afternoon pastime, and little more. We can remember the great controversies of those days: Mind-blowing debates about whether sport should be played on Sundays, and the almost paranoid fear that shut out television for years, lest the punters stayed home in their armchairs.
We have seen sport turn first into sport/business, then into business/sport, and ultimately into pretty much just business, where everything is decided on the basis of commercial imperatives. We have seen rampant technology work its way into every corner of the sporting landscape. Getting some decisions right, for sure, but removing much of the human element and the spontaneity that gave sport much of its soul.
Of all the things that have reflected a changing society over half a century and more, sport sits as a well-defined barometer. The stories of other times tell of a more relaxed, wilder, funnier, more heartfelt time, in which the human condition was paramount, and the underlying qualities of mutual respect and responsibility to the group held greater sway.
The rise of women’s sport in fields once solely the preserve of males is perhaps the greatest marker of that change. The most significant change for men, of course, is the money they make, in an age where television and the proliferation of mobile devices have turned sport into a massive public entertainment, generating a financial tsunami. Next step is for the women to start catching up.
Ian Heads and Norman Tasker are the authors of Great Australian Sporting Stories, tracing 60 years of change in Australian sport, available in all good bookstores.