Sporting chances, Russell Marshall

Sport, Society and Culture
ed Brad Patterson
Stout Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, $24.95,
ISBN 0 473 06403 0


It is extraordinary, to say the least, that sport and academe in New Zealand have squared off against each other for so long. This is quite different from what has happened in Australia, say, where sports writing of admirable quality, where an academic interest in sport, and where sports fiction and film, have all long been staples of that society.

Vincent O’Sullivan comes straight to the point in his foreword to this collection of essays first presented at a Stout Centre conference at Victoria University of Wellington in October 1998. The conference, on the theme The Real Level Playing Field?: Sport, Society and Culture was “an attempt to jog things along, to draw together historians, sociologists, writers, and sportspeople to consider … how sport reflects, defines, and enlivens our lives; to take up the challenge of how a nation’s culture is also, to a large, extent, the story of a nation’s sport.”

Until I read this book, it had never actually occurred to me that writing about sport in this country has been so narrow, that it has so rarely moved beyond biography/ autobiography and tour accounts, that the twain of sport and a broader perception of culture have rarely met. In one way or another, O’Sullivan, Lloyd Jones, Chris Laidlaw and Roger Robinson all make this point in their contributions to this book. As Robinson points out, “The high public interest in sport … (has) not been matched by a literature (or any other art) of lasting quality.” C’mon Black and Foreskin’s Lament are hardly sufficient proof to the contrary.

Brian Turner notes Seamus Heaney’s observation that much of his writing arises from a fusion of his roots and his reading. Given that sport, especially rugby, has for so many men at least been part of their roots, it is indeed strange that the writing about this dimension of our lives has been so narrow, and so confined at that to the fleetingly famous. Even there, as Lloyd Jones observes, the stories have been “under told”. As an example of great stories still to be told, Jones gives a nice teaser of those possibilities in his summary of the “almost Homeric” odyssey of the 1905 All Blacks’ tour to the UK.

Jones suggests that it is intellectual snobbery which has caused us to be so short-changed, that for too long any writer who might have expressed an interest in sport risked not being taken seriously. The conference, and this publication of sixteen of its papers, are an effort to draw this strange situation to wider attention in the hope that things will change.

Or rather, that they will continue to change. There has been some progress. Two of those who have managed to write more broadly about sport (James McNeish and Brian Turner) are contributors. McNeish tells of his attempt to understand Jack Lovelock in researching and writing the non-fiction novel Lovelock, while Turner, as he does so often, gives an often evocative illustration of what is possible.

There are other recent exceptions, and Robinson refers to some of them, such as novels and stories by Tessa Duder, David Hill, Paula Boock, and Owen Marshall. Robinson also reviews the work of five writers whose work is now largely but undeservedly forgotten. I now have works by Samuel Butler (The English Cricketers, 1864), Robin Hyde (Miss Auckland on Roller Skates, 1931, and All Night Queue, 1937), Ruth France (The Race, 1958), Norman Harris (The Legend of Lovelock, 1964, and Champion of Nothing, 1965), and Gordon Slatter (The Pagan Game, 1968) on my secondhand bookshop search list. 

Well, what is there to write about apart from the account of the game, the scores and the scorers, the outstanding players on the day? We have done reasonably well at that, sometimes very well. R T Brittenden, T P McLean, Alex Veysey and others have often shown skill, flair and insight. We have had our share of colourful radio and television commentators as well. Few who grew up in the 1940s and 50s will forget Winston McCarthy’s colourful and enthusiastic radio rugby commentaries. Nearer to our own time, I still miss Iain Galloway on cricket, though Jeremy Coney is always good listening.

All of this, however, is largely about the game itself. Where, apart from the occasional glimpse from a Brian Turner, is the writing about larger contexts? What was, or might have been, happening in the town that day, what might it have been like in a household/family shared by a police officer and a protester in 1981? What may rugby or netball have actually done towards a better understanding of race relations or giving Pacific Island families a better place in the New Zealand sun? When I started to think about it, there seems so much fertile territory in local and even in international sport for fiction writing from these roots. In the non-fiction territory, Brian Turner shows what can be done in writing about his own experience in sailing, fishing, climbing, cycling, about what physical involvement means to him, about what he sees as the New Zealand character, and about participation in sport as more than simply wanting to crush the opposition.

Rugby is in a sense a case apart. At least from the end of the Second World War until the 1970s, rugby and New Zealand’s success became bound up with nationalism. I did nothing particularly strange when I rode a powered pushbike from Reefton to Christchurch and back for the historic third test between the Springboks and the All Blacks in 1956. Nine years later, then living in Christchurch, I made my first anti-apartheid protest by staying home from a rather more interesting match between the same teams. The South African connection was beginning to become an albatross around the neck of New Zealand rugby. Eventually it was the 1981 Springbok tour which produced a time when we began to redefine who we are and how we see ourselves in the world.

Few, if any, other sporting events have had anything like the impact of that 1981 tour. Neither the hype of the America’s Cup (with triumph turning to sourness and some disillusion within months) nor the advent of widespread professional sport have even come close. Nevertheless, such events have their own effects on our broader culture. It was ever thus, nationally and locally. Bill Keane’s chapter on the 1982 All Whites soccer team tells of disillusionment with rugby after 1981 turning the interest of greater numbers to soccer, and of the way in which the saga of the All Whites’ long journey to the World Cup captured the imagination of so many in that year. David Grant describes the interesting story of the long and difficult struggle of jockeys for recognition, for decent working conditions and for basic rights. Geoffrey Vincent’s contribution illustrates the way in which rowing regattas in Canterbury in the latter half of the 19th century fostered a sense of community between and within social classes of the day. In an interesting variation on the theme, Lydia Wevers uses some of her research on travel writing to show how the attractions of fishing and hunting in this country were used by British travel writers to foster the impression of a resemblance to an upperclass Britain.

It is all too easy to think and write of sport as almost exclusively male. Adrienne Simpson redresses the balance somewhat with her account of the evolution of women’s cricket from its earliest years to a time when there is greater recognition, support and not a little success. Clare Simpson has an interesting and amusing piece about the struggle of 19th century women cyclists to hold onto their “womanly qualities” both in their riding style and in their dress, while out cycling. Shona Thompson’s essay, scrutinising women’s relationship to sport, often jumps sharply from the pitch and hits the (male) batsman in the box. She starts with reflections on women’s objections to the 1981 Springbok tour:

Feminist analyses provided reasons for why they were there, which were based in long held and deeply felt anger at the traditional stronghold of male power represented by the sport of rugby union in New Zealand, made highly visible by events surrounding “The Tour”. It was argued that women’s protests were as much about internal gender relations concerning rugby as they were about international race and sporting relations.


Thompson suggests that Maori women, so prominent in the front line of protests that year, were also protesting at the state of our race relations. On the face of it, I would have thought that in this area the recent merging of previously gender-separate sports bodies and clubs has been an advance. Shona Thompson, however, points out the downside – that such roles as catering and fundraising are seen as an
extension of female prescribed labour and household management: “Sport has become a highly marketable and marketed commodity, but … women’s reproductive and sustaining labour remains invisible and unaccounted … It is not a level playing field in sport when the labour of one group brings the greatest rewards and benefits for another.” We are still slow learners. When netball authorities recently suggested making games for children non-competitive, TV1 responded with dismissive responses from male commentators.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, informative and often perceptive. It issues a challenge to writers, men in particular, not to be embarrassed about bringing knowledge and experience of sport into their fiction. There is also, I think, a more general challenge for us to accept, nearly twenty years after the 1981 Springbok tour, that our sport in all its dimensions is a central ingredient of the culture of Aotearoa New Zealand.


Russell Marshall is Chancellor of Victoria University of Wellington.


Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Essays, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology, Sport
Search the archive
Search by category