A Sporting Nation

The most striking trend in the history of the Australian of the Year awards has been the high frequency of sporting winners. Fifteen Australians of the Year have had a background in sport, and the proportion is even higher for the Young Australian of the Year award. Some have perceived an overemphasis on sporting achievement, particularly in recent times. This debate peaked in 2004 when Steve Waugh became the fourth sportsperson in seven years to win the award. Waugh was also the third successive Australian Test Cricket Captain to take home the honour. Indeed, captaining the cricket team ranks second only to winning a Nobel Prize as the surest path to winning an Australian of the Year award. The inevitable criticisms prompted a response from both sides of politics. Prime Minister John Howard commented: ‘It’s not a question of sport or the arts. We can have both. It’s not a question of sport or science. We can have that as well.’ Opposition Leader Mark Latham also leapt to Steve Waugh’s defence calling him a ‘great ambassador’ for Australia.

The large number of sporting winners might be attributed to the fact that since 1979, five out of six NADC chairs have had a background in sport, including Herb Elliot, John Newcombe, Kevan Gosper, Lisa Curry-Kenny and Adam Gilchrist. The only non-sporting chair, Phillip Adams, recalls that during his reign he discouraged the selection of sports people, who he believed were over awarded as it was.65 Another former NADC board member, Marjorie Turbayne, recalls that there was always someone on the board who was violently opposed to sport.66 Despite this opposition, sporting achievement remains a key measure of greatness in mainstream Australian culture. Furthermore, international sporting competition provides an important forum for patriotic expression. Sporting role models are among the most influential in Australian culture so it is unsurprising that they figure strongly in the Australian of the Year awards.

It is a vast oversimplification, of course, to bundle all the sporting winners of the Australian of the Year award into the same category, so varied have been there achievements. Winners of the main award have excelled in cricket, swimming, athletics, sailing, tennis, boxing and motor racing. Furthermore, the detailed justification for each winner’s award cannot be so easily summarised. Some have been honoured quite simply for their unparalleled international sporting success, while others have been admired as much for how they have behaved in competition. In 1962 Jock Sturrock’s America’s Cup Crew won only one race in the best of seven series, but he won admiration for his sportsmanlike conduct. Sir Norman Martin told the assembled press that ‘it was not always the winning of a race that carried the glory, and that to have lost often carried a higher reward.’67 In other instances, however, the sheer magnitude of sporting achievement was enough to warrant an award in its own right. The selection panel could hardly ignore Dawn Fraser’s Herculean achievement of three successive Olympic gold medals; but she was a controversial sports star and, shortly after being named Australian of the Year, she was banned from competition by the Amateur Swimming Union of Australia.

The proper balance between success and sportsmanship is relevant to two more recent award winners: tennis champions Patrick Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt. Rafter was named Australian of the Year in 2002 after two successive appearances in the Wimbledon Final; he was runner-up on both occasions, but like Jock Sturrock he won acclaim for his sportsmanlike behaviour. The following year Lleyton Hewitt succeeded where Rafter had failed and became Australia’s first Wimbledon champion in fifteen years – he was named Young Australian of the Year a few months later. Despite his greater success, Hewitt was often criticised for his on-court antics. In an article criticising Hewitt’s award, Peter Fitzsimons argued the Wimbledon champion was ‘a long, long way from being the pin-up for admirable behaviour the way Patrick Rafter was throughout his long career.’68 But the Hewitt/Rafter comparison raises another important issue: apart from being ultimately more successful than Rafter, Hewitt also enjoyed another advantage – he actually lived in Australia. Since the 1960s absentee winners of the Australian of the Year award have attracted adverse attention. When Nobel Prize winning chemist Sir John Cornforth was honoured in 1975, The Age noted: ‘The Australian of the Year has not lived here for 37 years.’69 In Rafter’s case, his residence in Bermuda (a tax haven) certainly attracted comment,70 although his extensive philanthropy in Australia tended to cancel out any negative perception. In the more recent era of professional sport, the philanthropy of highly paid sports stars like Rafter and Waugh has become an increasingly important factor in the Australian of the Year selection process.

Those who have achieved notable sporting feats have often received the Australian of the Year award as much for what they have achieved in other fields. For example, round-the-world yachtsman Ian Kiernan won his award primarily for his work in founding Clean Up Australia; the rubbish he had observed in oceans around the world inspired him to set up an environmental campaign that had an international impact. A few years earlier Kay Cottee was honoured as the first woman to circumnavigate the globe non-stop and unassisted, but of equal importance was her highly successful fundraising for drug education. In these and several other cases, the sporting success of Australians of the Year has often been only one part of a larger story.