As the last white dove is released and the lingering strains of John Farnham’s That’s Freedom reverberate through the playlists of commercial radio, we can put so called ‘Freedom Day’ to bed and get ready for the largely abnormal return to pseudo normalcy – if that makes sense. Looking back on the months of lockdown we have just escaped it’s pertinent to reflect on the role sport has played during the pandemic and in Australian society at large.
When Brisbane held the rugby league grand final a few weeks ago, Premier Palaszczuk announced that everybody attending the game should wear a mask during the game, unless they were drinking or eating. It was clear from the TV coverage that this mandate was totally disregarded in a Mexican wave of mass disobedience. Whether it was the fervor of the event or an act of defiance, well over 90% of the crowd chose to not wear masks.
When quizzed about this after the game Queensland’s chief health officer Dr Jeanette Young, renowned for her usual hard line approach in dealing with COVID, chose not to comment stating that she was not at Suncorp Stadium on the night. Needless to say she only had to turn on the TV to see what was happening. Premier Palaszcuk was at the game, where perhaps she could have taken control of the situation, but chose to sidestep the issue by stating that most patrons were wearing masks as they entered the stadium. It was a substantial coup for Queensland hosting the NRL final and no amount of post-match party pooping was going to diminish the triumph.
Whilst community sport shut down completely during the various lockdowns, both the federal and state governments bent over backwards to keep professional sport alive. There’s no doubt that for many people, the Olympics, footy, basketball, horseracing and many other sports provided some welcome psychological relief during lockdown. The major TV networks were heavily invested in sporting programs and the pandemic actually provided a boost in their advertising revenue, particularly from the global bookmaking conglomerates like Ladbrokes and Sportsbet.
Whilst many Australians remain stranded overseas and border closures keep families separated, sport is held as almost sacrosanct. If you are an Australian stuck in the UK and desperately trying to get home for Christmas, your chances might be rather slim. Then again if you are a rugby player from Argentina, the door is well and truly open, even if you spend most of your time here in Queensland.
Much has been written over the years regarding Australia’s obsession with sport and the priorities that it’s afforded. Witness the current NSW government’s willingness to splurge millions knocking down perfectly good stadiums to build even grander facilities, whilst many school children are still housed in shabby demountables. Sport of course is a huge vote winner especially when it comes to pork barrelling, like a $5.5 million handout to the local clay target club. Karl Marx called religion the opiate of the masses, but sport has long since assumed that mantle.
It’s also a great diversion that directs public attention from what’s really needed in the country, channelling it into the jingoism of “Come On, Aussie Come On”. When Melbourne hosted the Olympics in 1956, it was perceived as a massive international achievement with Australia firmly asserting its place on the world stage. Yet if you had driven from Sydney to Melbourne for the games, the crumbling, largely two lane Hume Highway, complete with rickety old wooden bridges, would have tested your best driving skills.
Whilst countries throughout the world invested heavily in the post-war period, building road and rail infrastructure, in Australia we did bugger all. It took decades after 1956 to bring the Hume Highway up to scratch and the Pacific Highway is still very much a work in progress. Japan, France and Italy, countries that were ravaged in WWII, all managed to build extensive high-speed rail, with enormous economic benefits. Travel on one of our interstate trains between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and it’s like an outing for a Rail Transport Museum.
Certainly we can’t blame this lack of insight entirely on our preoccupation with sport and there are many other factors involved. But it does become a familiar digression when ever we need to push reality into the background. Who the hell cares about COVID, when it’s only 10 years to the Brisbane Olympics?