Australia’s defeat in the gold medal netball final in the Commonwealth Games topped off a terrible year for the sporting nation.
In Australia netball is almost like a religion. According to the Australian Sports Commission in 2016, nearly 600,000 Australian women played netball that year. For girls it was the most team sport with 324,177 participants, second only to swimming overall.
Before their dramatic win in the 2018 Gold Coast games final, England had only ever beaten Australia five times at netball in history. Since netball was introduced into the Commonwealth Games in 1998, every final up until this one had been contested between the Aussies and the Kiwis, the two powerhouses of the sport. Australia’s netball team, known as the Diamonds, are ranked number one in the world, have won 11 world championships and three Com Games gold medals.
But that accounted for little in south-east Queensland this month when England stunned the hosts with a final second goal from Helen Housby to seal a historic win.
Sport holds a special place in the heart of the Australian nation, a sacred position in Australian cultural life. It has been that way for decades, but especially after the embarrassment of the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal and the formation of the Australian Institute of Sport in 1981. Achieving in sport is how this sparsely populated country at the arse end of the globe makes its name on the global stage.
Sports stars and athletes are regularly honoured with the Australian of the Year award. Figures like Don Bradman, Dan Fraser, Clive Churchill, Rod Laver, Greg Norman and Cathy Freeman have almost mythical status. The exploits of Mark Webber, Andrew Bogut, Harry Kewell, Cadel Evans and others in faraway lands are applauded and hailed. The captain of the Australian cricket seemingly has as much as status and is in held in similar esteem as the post of Australian Prime Minister.
So in this vein, success is thoroughly celebrated but defeat in the big brown land conversely can be tough to take. Especially in a sport like netball where Australia’s dominance has become almost predictable, apart from some titanic tussles with their trans-Tasman neighbours New Zealand.
But while Australia has long punched above its weight on the sporting field in many pursuits, it has to endure leaner times more recently. Once a leader in sports science and conditioning, the rest of the world has caught up.
Its cricket team has waded through a sea of faecal matter in recent weeks with the ‘tampergate’ saga. That has scandal cost the scalp of the coach, captain and two others players, leaving its reputation in tatters.
Its football team has made it this year’s World Cup in Russia, but lost its head coach on the way who mysteriously walked out. The Socceroos had to go through a difficult two-legged playoff series, after missing out on direct qualification through Asia, arguably the easiest confederation in the world. Meanwhile the governance of football in Australia is in dire straights, with FIFA intervening, and the A-League competition is struggling.
The Wallabies, the national rugby union team, has been on the slide since 2015 when it reached the World Cup final. They have suffered embarrassing defeats to Scotland last year and are on a horror losing run at the hands of England. Australian finished 10th overall in the medal table at the 2016 Rio Olympics, with eight gold and 29 medals in total, a drop of six medals from 2012 London, a drop of 17 medals from 2008 Beijing and a drop of 22 medals from 2004 Athens. The list goes on.
It is far from all bad, and Australia still has many elite sportsmen and women doing great things on the world stage. See world-class Ben Simmons in the NBA for example, or the world champions Kangaroos in rugby league.
But the problem when so much of your national identity and worth is wrapped up in sport, is that identity and ego can be bruised when the bounce of the ball doesn’t go your way. Sport is notoriously fickle and is impossible to predict. Things change, great athletes retire and new ones emerge.
Success is not a right but a privilege. It is always temporary. In this brave new sporting world, where upsets across all codes are a common occurrence, Australians would do well to heed that message.