DAVE NADEL AND GRAEME RYAN (Eds) Sport in Victoria: A history. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress
An encyclopaedic history of sport, this book should have wide appeal in Victoria and beyond.
In his 1873 travel memoir Australia and New Zealand, English novelist Anthony Trollope described Australians as boastful. He called this practice ‘blowing’ and accused the various colonies of widespread self-adulation ‘in the way of riding, driving, fighting, walking, working, drinking, love-making, and speech-making’. And he was clear regarding the whereabouts of the worst ‘blowers’:
You hear it and hear of it every day. They blow a good deal in Queensland; a good deal in South Australia. They blow even in poor Tasmania. They blow loudly in New South Wales … But the blast of the trumpet as heard in Victoria is louder than all the blasts – and the Melbourne blast beats all the other blowing of that proud colony.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Melbourne, visit there often, many of my best friends are Victorians – but 142 years on, the blowing continues: Melbourne is the world’s most liveable city; Melbourne is the literary capital of Australia. But it is sporting claims which are made loudest and longest: the Melbourne Cup is the world’s greatest horse race; the Melbourne Cricket Ground is the greatest sports stadium in the country; Royal Melbourne is Australia’s number one golf course; the Australian Open is the best attended of the tennis Grand Slams; the Melbourne Olympic Games of 1956 was the original ‘Friendly Games’; Melbourne is the sporting capital of the world and Melburnians are Australia’s ‘most intelligent sports watchers’. Some claims are true. The fact that even more are imagined probably gave the Melbourne publisher confidence to produce an encylopaedic history of sport which should have wide appeal to Victorian citizens.
A note on the back cover states that Sport in Victoria is published under the auspices of the Australian Society for Sports History, and editors Dave Nadel and Graeme Ryan have drawn on contributions from 76 sports writers, players, officials and historians that relate ‘the fascinating history of over 100 sports played in Victoria since the 1830s. It also covers the important events, venues, clubs and leagues which characterise Victoria’s sporting culture’.
How well is this detail presented?
Dave Nadel shows nimble footwork in the opening lines of his introduction, ‘Why Sport in Victoria?’ After discountenancing the nonsense of Melbourne being the sporting capital of the world as overblown, he adds that Victoria has the greatest spectator numbers and significant participation in sports. He then continues that while ‘important golf tournaments are shared with Sydney, and Test cricket is played around the country, most other world class events are held in Victoria’.
Tony Ward follows with ‘Something Special About Sport in Victoria?’, a second introduction that builds on Nadel’s but repeats remarks about spectatorship, participation levels and the wealth and optimism associated with the 19th century gold rushes that got the colony off to a flying start. However, Ward’s essay might have been better placed as a conclusion or afterword.
The book uses an A to Y format (there is no Z) wherein we learn that:
· ‘Australian football is Victoria’s sport’, an unfortunate slip by Nadel that immediately gets up the nose of this Adelaide reviewer. I have no argument with the game originating in Victoria.
· Australian football matches in Melbourne attract the largest weekly crowds in the country.
· Bell’s Beach Surfing Classic is the ‘longest continually running surfing contest in the world’.
· In cricket, Melbourne staged the world’s first Test match in 1877, the first limited-over international match in 1970, and Victoria was the first winner of the Sheffield Shield.
· In cycling, the Austral Wheel Race is the world’s oldest track cycling handicap race and the Melbourne to Warrnambool Cycling Classic is Australia’s oldest road cycling race and the second oldest in the world.
· Victoria is the ‘powerhouse of Australian racing’ and hosts more than half of the top 25 races in the country including the richest, the Melbourne Cup.
· The Melbourne Olympic Games was the first staged in the Southern Hemisphere.
Perhaps there is something to brag about.
Editing 179 entries from so many different contributors is a difficult task and Nadel and Ryan have done an outstanding job in ensuring consistent quality and readability. Given the breadth of material, it is difficult to signal highlights so a couple of short passages will have to suffice. In his essay on boxing, Arnold Thomas writes of an 1888 match between Australian heavyweight Frank ‘Paddy’ Slavin and Irishman Jack Burke at the Hibernian Hall, and, in particular, of the referee, the Eighth Marquis of Queensberry:
When the noble gent arrived, the crowd outside was so great that he was unable to enter the front door. This called for drastic measures, so three burly fellows lifted the Marquis through a window. During this clumsy manoeuvre, some light-fingered person stole his watch. Order was quickly restored, the pick pocket was caught and the timepiece returned to its owner.
And then there is this from Ryan on women’s golf:
Margie Masters created a stir when she returned to Australia in 1967 and played in Bermuda shorts … Since the early 1900s golf attire reflected the fashion of the day. Long skirts and button-up blouses gave way to tweed skirts and cardigans. Check flares and mini skirts became shorts and less flamboyant trousers. In recent years, players have returned to skirts, fitted tops, and, for the young, bare midriffs. Dress regulations have continued to keep pace with changes in fashion.
In assembling a book of this type an important feature is balance and on this the editors can rarely be faulted. All the major sports or those which have been important in the past – athletics, Australian football, boxing, cricket, cycling, golf, horse racing, netball and tennis – receive between six and 10 pages in their primary entries and the only sports that get short shrift are soccer with three pages, and basketball one and half. Most of the second-level sports such as baseball, harness racing, hockey, lacrosse, lawn bowls, and motor cycle and motor racing are well catered for in two or three pages; and minor sports such as bocce, paintball, petanque, orienteering and trugo cannot complain with the third or half pages allotted to them. The one area where an imbalance lies is the space given to special events: 11 lines for the AFL Grand Final, half a page for the Formula One Grand Prix and Australian Open Tennis championships, and a mere eight lines for the Melbourne Cup, compared to eight pages for the Melbourne Olympics, reveals a need for adjustment.
Sport in Victoria likely drew its inspiration from The Oxford Companions to Australian Sport and Australian Cricket published in the 1990s. Unlike those companions, however, there are no separate biographical entries in this volume. It might seem a strange history of Victorian sport that finds no room for mention of Shane Warne but it is understood that biographical material can be readily sourced from the internet and is being constantly updated. In any event pen portraits of figures such as athlete John Landy, baseballer Graeme Lloyd, equestrian Bill Roycroft, golfer Peter Thomson, entrepreneur John Wren (horse racing, harness racing, boxing) and others are found within their relevant sports.
The book is stylishly produced in A4 format and the illustrative material is exceptional. While my favourite images are the John Brack painting of Collingwood footballers Lou Richards, Jack Regan and Phonse Kyne, and the photograph of the art deco grandstand at Glenferrie Oval, the overall selection and placement of pictures, sketches and posters provides significant additions to a fine publication.
Dave Nadel and Graeme Ryan (Eds) Sport in Victoria: A history Ryan Publishing 2015 PB 400pp $79.95
Bernard Whimpress is an Adelaide-based historian who usually writes on sport. His most recent book is The Official MCC Story of the Ashes, 2015.
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