Talking sport

BRIAN ROE, THE EXAMINER

Opinion

This column was always going to be about what sounds like a great initiative, the Prime Ministers’ Sporting Oration, but trying to find out that which was orated for a long while seemed nigh on impossible.

And then well into time-on in the fourth quarter of column preparation, it finally popped up somewhere. It shouldn’t be that hard to find.

The idea is that each year a former PM will deliver their thoughts on sport in support of the Australian Sports Foundation’s drive to encourage more people to donate some cash. For those who can afford it hopefully big dollars to drive grassroots sport in particular.

And why not – it’s tax deductible and for a cause that can end up saving the nation’s health.

Whilst sporting tragics like Bob Hawke and John Howard would have seemed the more obvious choices to get things rolling – the nod on Wednesday night was given to Julia Gillard, perhaps best known in sport for her feverish support for the Western Bulldogs.

But to those who made the call, they were spot on. If you can find it – and surely someone can tinker with google search to make these fine words pop up before your eyes more readily, you will be impressed by a very fine essay.

It’s a pretty well-crafted set of thoughts, opening with a humorous dissertation on why the AFL might benefit from the inclusion of a “rang-ers only” team in the national competition. The dual role for Rhonda Burchmore as anthem singer and resting forward pocket was perhaps the only tenuous link in the argument.

Then it moved to a serious reflection on the national obsession with sport, summarising that a love of spot is as quintessentially Australian as amongst other things being able to put onions on top of your sausage in bread.

Two points among many wisely and accurately made were that sport bridges the cultural divide as a great leveller and helps transform attitudes across age, gender, ethnicity and geography.

Equally sound is the observation that sporting clubs can be the heartbeat of community – particularly in rural and regional Australia.

Yet every day they face a new barrier in delivering healthy and engaging opportunities for their local populations. Demographic change makes it hard enough – but a constant flow of red-tape, occupational health and safety mumbo-jumbo and unfathomable decisions by bureaucrats are demoralising,

We haven’t always got it right. For many young Australians of previous generations not being able to engage in sport to the standard expected in those past years was exclusionary and disheartening.

I have never forgotten the stand-in headmaster at primary school who sent me home from cricket practice because my skills weren’t good enough. His words - “who invited you to be here?” have been a constant reminder to me ever since to be the exact opposite.

Still irks me a fraction that a different primary school has an award in his honour. I never tried to play again except with family and friends in the backyard or at the beach.

Which segues nicely to the crescendo of Gillard’s oration – the links between sport and mental health. She advances a strong argument that the former help in dealing with the latter.

The former PM rightly observes that physical exercise and sport really matter – that the link between exercise and good mental health is well documented. For children, playing sport provides the opportunity to socialise and build interpersonal skills.

And then the epiphany that way too few of our nation’s leaders and top bureaucrats have experienced – “more funding for grassroots sport should be a priority”.

Gillard exalted the three tiers of government, philanthropists and businesses to do more.

If all or any of those groups takes up the cudgel in any significant way it will make a massive difference because none of them is doing enough right now to support that army of volunteers ready willing and able to do more.

NewsAnna Poulos