Whether we’re crowded around the TV watching the rugby or hovering on the sidelines at the local footy field, there’s no doubt we’re a sporty nation. It’s a crucial part of our culture that dates back to the early 1800s, and while we may be limited to a walk around the block for now, we’ll be back to our identity-shaping favourites in no time. Whether it’s The Ashes, the Melbourne Cup, AFL, or the Olympics, we’re known for our sporting prowess and for punching well above our weight. But where does our love of sports come from, and which sport comes out on top?
Sport officially arrived in Australia as the First Fleet landed on our shores back in 1778, but it wasn’t until 1810 that the first athletic event was held. Unlike the even playing field of today’s sports, early games were carried out in line with your class. The upper class played sports on a Saturday, while the lower class were restricted to public holidays only. It wasn’t until the 1830s onwards that sport was used as a form of social integration between classes, and the true Australian sporting culture began to emerge. Following on from athletics; cricket, sailing, rugby, Victorian rules football (or Aussie Rules as it’s known today) and horse racing were the preferred sporting pastimes. In fact, the Melbourne Cup dates back to 1861 and Aussie Rules became an official code in 1859 – originally devised as a way to keep cricketers fit throughout the winter.
Up until the late 1800s, women took a back seat when it came to getting involved in sports. Even when they were able to participate, high profile events like the Olympics were strictly off limits. It wasn’t until 1912 that the first female represented Australia at the Olympic games.
What fuels our love of sports?
The enduring love Aussies feel for sports extends beyond codes, and is a far-reaching, almost-religious obsession. With 80% of Australians agreeing that sport is a significant part of the culture, it’s clear the love is strong. But why are we so sport obsessed?
- It’s good for us – the number one reason is an obvious one, it is great for our physical health and fitness.
- We can share our passion – watching or even participating in team sports enable friends, strangers and even rivals to come together with a shared passion. It brings with it a sense of community and belonging – rivals often congratulate each other after a game, and it’s this sense of shared identity that humans crave.
- It makes for a great chat – shared watercooler banter would be thin on the ground if it wasn’t for sport. Sporting events make their way off the field or stadium and into the workplace, where it creates collaboration and an opportunity to bond.
- The self-esteem boost – team sports are full of social connection. Whether you’re watching or participating, that connection can boost your self-esteem and deliver you a serious hit of national pride.
- It’s inclusive – sport doesn’t judge you for your race or background. Sports break down all sorts of barriers and welcome diversity. The fact that anyone can ‘give it a go’ fits with our Aussie moral compass.
- We love seeing our shared values in action – a lot of our cultural values are derived from our sporting heroes. Whether it’s legendary John Landy sacrificing his chance at a world record to help a fallen competitor or Adam Gilchrist’s honest walk that stunned the world in a World Cup semi-final, it’s these moments that cement our values and make us proud to be a sporting nation.
- It’s inspiring – watching our heroes in action fuels our love for sports even more and top tier events like the Olympics and Paralympics typically create a huge surge in popularity and participation.
Which sports come out on top?
Figures for participation and viewing are pretty different, so let’s look at how we get involved at a personal level. According to the AusPlay survey by Sport Australia, the top sports and physical activities we participate in:
- Walking – while there’s no surprises here (particularly at the moment), walking for fitness is one of the most affordable and accessible ways to get active and get outdoors. Whilst recreational walking is no1, bushwalking comes in at no8.
- Fitness/Gym – whether you head to a Pilates class or hit the gym for some weights, regimented, paid activities come out second in terms of involvement.
- Swimming – regardless of age, we love our swimming. Its something kids get involved in at a young age, and with no shortage of beaches there are plenty of opportunities for us to get in the water.
- Running/Athletics – running and athletics are also highly accessible and often don’t require any specialised equipment – which cements them a spot in the top 5.
- Cycling – with over 2 million of us getting on our bikes either competitively or as a way to get around, we’re a nation of cyclists from a young age.
- Soccer (Football) – the most popular organised team sport in the top 10. Not only is it one of the most played sports, but it is estimated that more than half of the world’s population consider themselves to be soccer (football) fans.
- Tennis – getting outdoors for a quick hit is a favourite pastime for many of us. While it’s an ideal social sport, it’s also a popular competitive one.
- Basketball – since Australian basketballers have been making it in the big leagues over in America, its popularity has surged – even on the sports betting front! More kids are choosing to get involved in the sport after seeing their local heroes on the world stage.
- Golf – with stunning, world-class golf courses dotted across the country, it’s hardly surprising that over a million of us participate in golf.
- AFL – arguably one of our most passionate home grown sports, and also the single most popular sport to bet on. The crowds, the colours and of course the club theme songs all bring back childhood memories and continue to be a big part of our Aussie culture.
Some sports loved amongst Aussie’s are even more popular around the world. With over 14 million Australians participating in sport annually, and over 220,000 employed across the sector, sport in Australia generates approximately 3% of our GDP. As the lifestyles of Australians change and demographics shift, the future of sports in Australia are likely to change too. The Australian Sports Commission (ASC) has identified these key trends which will shape the sector:
- Personalisation – sport is being increasingly tailored to fit in with our lifestyles, and with an ageing population and an increasingly diverse cultural landscape, sports will adapt to suit. Health is becoming a key driver over competition, with more of us squeezing in a quick run or walk while listening to a podcast rather than committing to a regular organised event.
- The extreme becomes mainstream – the rise of social media and viewing content online has led to previously ‘extreme’ sports becoming more mainstream with younger demographics. It has become the basis of self-identity and self-expression.
- Recognition of the broader benefits – as outlined in the Australian Government’s Sport 2030 National Plan, the benefits of sports participation are critical in developing a healthy nation – both physically and mentally.
- Overseas wealth and talent – with huge population growth in developing countries, competition will be fierce, particularly in Asia. This is likely to open new markets – from sports equipment through to tourism and events.
- Increasingly monetised – participation in sport at an elite level will continue to be increasingly monetised which will have an impact on which sports athletes choose to participate in or train towards.
Whether you’re participating in or viewing sports, you’ll benefit from some amazing mental health benefits. If you choose to get physically involved, you’ll reap the benefits of both physical and mental health, and the only thing you’re likely to regret is not getting involved. Remember, if you don’t mind a flutter on your sport of choice, gamble responsibly!