Australian sport in 2021: a bright year despite predictably dark clouds

In his seminal work on nationalism, Eric Hobsbawm wrote that “the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people.” He meant that as a criticism – the line is drawn from a passage where the historian described the use of sport, especially football, to inculcate nationalist fervour in Europe during the interwar years. “The individual, even the one who only cheers, becomes a symbol of his nation himself,” Hobsbawm added.

But in 2021, the power of sport for good was firmly on display. Amid the darkest year for Australia in decades, sport has offered hope, distraction and unity. When a majority of Australians were midway through a bruising lockdown, the nation’s Olympians and Paralympians delivered inspiration and joy in equal measure. The somewhat-fragile imagined community of Australia manifested on the shoulders of its successful athletes in Tokyo.

And what success it was. Australia’s 17 Olympic gold medals this year equalled its best performance ever, matched only by Athens 2004. After a slide down the medal table at London 2012 and then Rio 2016 (where the green and gold took home just eight gold medals), Tokyo represented an emphatic return to form for a historically dominant sporting nation.

In the pool, Australia’s swimmers had their best ever Olympics. Emma McKeon’s seven medals, including four golds, made her the most-decorated Australian athlete at a single Olympics. A new golden generation emerged before our eyes – Ariarne Titmus dethroned American Katie Ledecky as queen of the pool, while backstroke supremo Kaylee McKeown had viewers in tears as she paid tribute to her recently-deceased father after each of her three gold medals. Aged just 21 and 20 respectively, the pair have distinguished careers ahead of them.

Australians dominated on top of the water, too, in rowing, surfing and canoeing. Owen Wright and Jess Fox offered lessons in determination and persistence – Wright won bronze as surfing made its Olympic debut, five years after he suffered what could have been a career-ending injury, while the flying canoeist Fox won the gold medal that had eluded her for a decade.

At the Tokyo stadium, sprinter Rohan Browning came agonisingly close to breaking the 10-second barrier, while Peter Bol captivated the nation with his endurance in the 800m and his eloquence in the spotlight. On the last weekend of Olympic action, the Boomers finally won Australia’s first men’s basketball medal, led by the inspirational Patty Mills, who had earlier become the first Indigenous athlete to carry Australia’s flag in the opening ceremony.

It felt, at least momentarily, that a divided nation had come together; to collectively celebrate victory, mourn defeat and appreciate the raw humanity of sport. “To Australia I’m thankful,” Bol said after winning his semi-final. “We’re just human at the end of the day. We inspired the whole nation – that’s the goal.”

While the Olympics and subsequent Paralympics offered a temporary reprieve from a difficult reality (plus, some months later, a maiden T20 World Cup triumph for Australia’s cricketers), the joy did not last. The AFL and NRL’s high-profile vaccine mandate dilemmas were not a distraction but a microcosm of wider societal tensions over the jab. One of Australia’s premier cycling teams accepted sponsorship cash from Saudi Arabia as part of the murderous regime’s efforts at sportwashing its image, while Winter Olympians were left in an invidious position by the silence of international and Australian Olympic committees on China’s human rights record as the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing loom.

Just as Australia at large was grappling with an allegation of gender-based and sexual violence – most prominently at Parliament House – so too did a cloud of abuse and mistreatment linger over sport. Six months before its parliamentary equivalent, the Australian Human Rights Commission released a report on “systemic” problems in gymnastics. A lawyer who represented numerous athletes during the inquiry described the sport as a “petri dish for abuse”.

On the eve of the Olympics, Rio medallist Maddie Groves made allegations of abuse and mistreatment within swimming. More recently, an investigation by the ABC raised separate allegations of historical sexual abuse in the sport. Football and hockey also confronted concerns about high-performance culture over the past 12 months, while an independent review found that AFL club Collingwood had a culture of structural racism. The NRL continues to grapple with allegations of domestic and sexual violence against star players.

While it is depressing to admit, perhaps none of this should surprise us. We know, both anecdotally and empirically, that Australia has a sexual harassment problem, an abuse problem and a racism problem. Just as sport offers a vivid image of our imagined communities – a heady mix of tribalism and nationalism – so too does it reflect society itself. We would be naïve to think otherwise. If harassment is rife in our parliament, why wouldn’t it be prevalent in our locker-rooms? Both must be urgently addressed.

2021 was a year which highlighted the best and worst of Australian sport. The same can be said of Australian society as a whole. Hopefully 2022 offers more highs and less lows – that, surely, is something we can all cheer for.