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Sporting Culture

Melbourne has a reputation for being the 'sporting capital' of Australia (even the world), and there are some historical grounds for this claim. While the sporting obsessions of Australians in general have often been commented on by international observers, and regularly documented by domestic writers, the people of Melbourne seem to have a particular passion for both watching and playing sport. Journalist Keith Dunstan relates how John Snow, the famous English fast bowler from the 1970s, observed that Melburnians were 'like piranha fish' when it came to sport, as they devoured anything to satisfy their appetite for competition.

The roots of Melbourne's distinctive sporting culture date from the earliest days of European settlement. The influential Melbourne Cricket Club, founded in 1838, just three years after the settlement, acted as a focal point for a range of sporting activities, notably cricket and athletics. After an enclosure of 10 acres (4 ha) in Richmond Park was secured from the governor for exclusive use in 1853, the club was able to benefit from gate-money revenue. This was in contrast to Sydney, where no dominant club took the place of the Australian Cricket Club, founded in 1826, after its collapse in the 1860s. In addition, there was no suitably enclosed ground in Sydney until 1871, and relationships with the trustees of the Sydney Cricket Ground were acrimonious. Melbourne also had an established racecourse long before Randwick became a centre for horseracing in Sydney during the 1860s, with Flemington racecourse opening in 1840. There was also a time lag between the two cities in terms of the development of football codes. The discovery of gold in 1851 had created a melting pot of immigrants. Various forms of folk football were played until 1858, when colonial-born Tom Wills, recently returned from Rugby School in England, provided the inspiration for a code that was initially known as Melbourne, then Victorian and finally Australian Rules Football, with the Melbourne Football Club (1858) and Geelong Football Club (1859) laying claim to being the oldest football clubs in the world. The first codification of rules took place in 1866, and the Victorian Football Association was formed in 1877, with some of the wealthier clubs seceding to form the Victorian Football League in 1896. By comparison, organised football did not begin in Sydney until the mid-1860s, when a form of rugby football emerged, and soccer was not played anywhere in Australia until 1880.

Football also holds the key to another characteristic of sport in Melbourne. Many of the first teams, such as Melbourne, South Yarra, St Kilda, Carlton, Prahran, Footscray, Fitzroy and Richmond, were based on localities and developed strong tribal dimensions, which attracted female as well as male supporters. In fact, the proportion of women that attend the Australian game has always been far greater than for any other football code in the world. In Sydney, most of the dominant rugby clubs were not based on localities. They had a reputation for hyper-masculinity, and a fully-fledged suburban competition did not emerge until 1900.

Geography, city planning and educational institutions have also played their part in creating a more enduring environment for sport in Melbourne than in other Australian cities. The city's relatively flat terrain has assisted municipal authorities and sporting bodies in their efforts to create a multitude of ovals and racecourses. The sports grounds in the city and suburbs are almost invariably larger than such facilities in Sydney. Moreover, an abundance of flat land in Melbourne has also assisted the development of an extensive and effective public transport network, making it easier for spectators to attend sporting events in large numbers. Melbourne was never an overly congested urban centre, but rather spread itself outwards, meaning that relatively more space was always available for recreational and sporting pursuits in the immediate vicinity of the city. By 1890 the populations of Melbourne and Sydney were almost the same, but Melbourne spread over twice the area. The suburban spread and concomitant access to appropriate recreational territory helped locality-based sporting organisations to emerge.

The cult of athleticism that had its genesis in English public schools in the late 19th century had a more pronounced effect on Melbourne, where there was an earlier, and larger, independent school network than in Sydney. The development of Australian Rules football, as well as other organised sports such as rowing, cricket, hockey and athletics, owed much not only to the efforts of enthusiastic schoolboys, but also to their headmasters. Most notable of these was Lawrence Arthur Adamson (1860-1932), who had a privileged upbringing in England and attended Rugby School. He accepted an appointment at Wesley College in 1887 and was persuaded to become sports master so as to foster the interest of boys in sport. Appointed headmaster in 1902, Adamson became renowned for his support of team games and was a staunch supporter of amateurism. Fervent about the character-building nature of sporting pursuits, Adamson and others of his ilk at Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar also promoted competitions such as the Head of the River and organisations such as military cadet corps.

Melbourne's comparative wealth also spurred the development of the racing industry and led to large investments in the allied activities of betting and gambling and bookmaking, pursuits that were initially fostered by hotels. The first Melbourne Cup, a handicap event, was organised by the Victoria Turf Club (formed in 1852) and run at Flemington from 1861. Many who attended the first Cup were able to do so by travelling to the course on a new railway branch line, which had opened in February that year. The race, later marked by a public holiday, is now the centrepiece of a Spring Racing Carnival that attracts international horses and more than 500 000 spectators, and is unrivalled for fame and prestige. John Wren (1871-1953) became Melbourne's most notorious racing identity and gambling entrepreneur, promoting a diverse range of sports including football, cycling, boxing, wrestling and motor racing. He was also the owner of the illegal Collingwood Tote and a leading benefactor of the Collingwood Football Club.

The support of the mass media has also been influential in both reflecting and promoting the sporting culture of Melbourne. Australian Rules football, for instance, has always gained massive promotional benefits from its close connection with newspapers, then radio and later television. Indeed, the symbiotic relationship between the media and football in Melbourne is central to understanding the cultural significance of the game. In Victoria there has always been extensive newspaper coverage of 'Aussie Rules'. Circulation gains are always linked to the start of each new season. Similarly, the popularity of football was enhanced by the first radio broadcast of a match in 1925. The advent of television in time for the 1956 Olympic Games only served to intensify the rivalry between media outlets, and quickly resulted in saturation coverage of football. Television companies, particularly the Seven Network, have injected massive amounts of money into the code, enabling clubs and players to achieve a level of professionalism (and public profile) unheard of in previous decades. A lucrative new broadcasting agreement between the Australian Football League and a consortium of television networks has also guaranteed the financial security of several suburb-based teams such as Footscray Football Club (the Western Bulldogs) and North Melbourne Football Club (the Kangaroos), who have struggled to survive in an expanded national competition. It should be noted that men's football, in particular, and also men's cricket have always dominated media coverage in Melbourne, even though women in Victoria have played cricket since 1874 and football since 1920. Indeed, with 7000 participants, women's football is a fast-growing sport in the Victorian school system.

Melbourne also has a reputation for hosting important international sporting events, which are supported, in most cases, by legions of fans accommodated in relatively comfortable and spacious venues. The successful staging of the 1956 Olympic Games - and the resultant spurt in the building of new sporting facilities or refurbishment of old ones, such as the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Olympic Park and Albert Park stadium (initially used for basketball, badminton and squash) - was followed by other more regular events on the sporting calendar, including the well-patronised Boxing Day test cricket match and one-day international matches, as well as more irregular events such as Rugby Union Bledisloe Cup games and soccer World Cup qualifying matches. Regular hosting of the popular Australian Open Tennis Championships (initially at Kooyong Tennis Stadium, and then at the purpose-built Melbourne Park, incorporating the adaptable Rod Laver and Vodafone arenas), along with a number of sporting events at the new roofed stadium in the rapidly developing Docklands area, has helped to create a unique and enviable sports precinct in the Central Business District. Beyond this impressive core, there are several smaller, but perhaps no less significant, sports venues, including a netball centre at Royal Park, a major multipurpose cricket and football venue at Princes Park (Optus Oval) and a number of equine facilities including the Caulfield and Moonee Valley racecourses, not to mention Festival Hall in West Melbourne, once used regularly for smaller scale events such as boxing and wrestling, and various car-racing venues such as the Sandown International Motor Raceway and the Calder Park Thunderdome.

Many of the developments and facilities mentioned above have been predicated on government support, and while the health benefits of physical activity are acknowledged and can sometimes be viewed as preventative health care, the prime benefits of sport for State and federal governments are seen to be economic development and international recognition. Indeed, the competition to win big events for Melbourne has become somewhat of a sport itself. The Formula One Grand Prix, the Bledisloe Cup, the World Sailing Championships and the World Masters Games, not to mention the 2006 Commonwealth Games, not only generate millions of dollars for Melbourne, but also maintain its place on the global map as a 'big-league' city.

Sports spectatorship in Melbourne is also complemented by a wide array of leisure and recreation opportunities. Melbourne is well known for its more than 70 golf courses, most notably the Royal Melbourne, and Victoria is a mecca particularly for the growing numbers of golf-mad Japanese and British tourists. Port Phillip Bay has been a haven for those who want to fish or participate in bathing, yachting and boating, and for those who have a more formal involvement in surf-lifesaving, all popular activities since around the late 19th century. The provision of municipal pools, including the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre in the City of Port Phillip and the Harold Holt Memorial Pool in Malvern, also cater for those keen to take part in swimming and diving, as well as more informal aquatic activities. Melbourne is also renowned for its spacious and beautiful parks and gardens, bicycle tracks and walking trails. In fact, walking for pleasure and enjoying nature, both of which require little or no professional organisation, are often cited in surveys as the most popular pursuits of Melburnians. However, over the past ten years there have been moves to transform several of Melbourne's parks into commercial ventures. Albert Park was transformed for the Grand Prix; a grandstand and car parks have taken up more of Princes Park, and a museum now encroaches on a significant part of the Carlton Gardens. The new netball complex at Royal Park and the nearby Melbourne Zoo carpark take up further land in what is considered by many to be a magnificent inner-city bush setting. It is thus important to recognise the city's 'green' heritage, which makes these more recreational forms of participation possible, serving to enhance Melbourne's overall profile as a great sporting city with an especially vibrant cultural nexus of sports, games, recreation and leisure.

Rob Hess, Caroline Symons And Dennis Hemphill

Cashman, Richard, and Tom Hickie, 'The divergent sporting cultures of Sydney and Melbourne', Sporting Traditions, vol. 7, no. 1, November 1990, pp. 26-46. Details
Dunstan, Keith, Sports, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1981. Details