Popularity of sport in Australia: We're not that into it and we're not good at it either

The Socceroos will be in Honduras by now. Our national football/soccer team (depending on which side of the "Barassi Line" you live) will be hunkered down in a hotel somewhere in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, trying to ignore the commotion outside, trying to focus despite the inevitable groups of local fans milling around, chanting, singing, making sure the Australians know they're in enemy territory.

Honduras fans have experience with this stuff. In his Fairfax column last Saturday, Peter Fitzsimons recounted the story of a World Cup qualifier between Honduras and their neighbours El Salvador in 1969, when fans besieged team hotels, violence broke out in the stands, and tensions between the two countries reached such a level that an all-out war – involving actual bombing strikes by both nations' air forces – broke out between the two after El Salvador won the second leg 3-0.

That's the sort of passion the Socceroos are going to face over there. It's also a story that puts the lie to that most cherished of Australian myths: that we here in a sunburnt country are uniquely obsessed with sport, that we as a nation are exceptionally talented, and that we take this stuff far more seriously than anyone else.

We don't even come close. And the more you travel, the more you realise it. Australians love sport, sure. But we're not obsessed with it in the way other countries are. We're not madly passionate about it. We're not even that good at it.

This is something another Fairfax columnist, Waleed Aly, recently commented on at the Sports Writers Festival in Melbourne. Aly pointed out that in the US, for example, roughly 53 per cent of the entire country's population tuned in to watch the last Super Bowl. The AFL and NRL grand finals combined don't get anywhere near that here.

And on the relative sporting prowess of our athletes, Aly added: "On a GDP basis, we're probably about average. We're really good at sports that no one else plays."

Travellers would know this already – that we're not that good at sport, and we're not that interested. If you've been to Brazil, you've seen real sporting obsession. You've seen an entire nation stop in its tracks to watch a football game. You've seen true passion, true pain and joy and anguish, writ large across faces on every street corner.

It's the same way as you've seen it at a rugby match in South Africa, or at a football game in Italy, or at high school gridiron in the US, or at the Naadam – a festival of traditional sports – in Mongolia. These are just a few of the other countries that take sport far more seriously than we do. In these places sport is sometimes, quite literally, the stuff of life and death, rather than just an excuse to wear a fascinator and take a punt.

Australians like sport, definitely. We enjoy it for the spectacle. We watch it for the thrill. But we don't start wars over it. We don't get depressed, as a nation, when our team loses in the same way that, say, New Zealand does. We might all pause today to watch a horse race, but that's not because we collectively love horse racing – it's just a thing we do on the first Tuesday of November that gets us out of work for a while. Most of us don't even know who's running.


And we Australians are certainly not bizarrely better than most other nations in our athletic endeavours. Iceland, a country with a population of 335,000, has already qualified for the FIFA World Cup. New Zealand, a nation of 4.7 million, absolutely dominates the rugby world. Jamaica, with just under 3 million people, produces freakishly talented sprinter after freakishly talented sprinter.

But Australia? We're good at AFL, a sport no one else even plays. We used to be good at tennis, but then everyone else caught up. We have very few great track athletes; very few world-beating footballers.

We're just average really – a fact that doesn't fit in very well with the national myth, but it's true. And that's largely because we're actually not that into sport. Spend time in India and you see impromptu games of street cricket kicking off in every clearing, car park and field available (same as you do in Dubai, thanks to a large immigrant population). Spend time in Ghana and you see football matches taking place all around you.

But that doesn't happen so much in Australia. And that's fine. But as we pause as a nation to watch the Melbourne Cup today, and as we wait to see football results come in from a hopefully-not-war-torn Honduras, it's worth remembering that Australia is not unique. We don't love sport anymore than anyone else does.

In fact, we love it a little less.

Which countries do you think are the most sports mad? How do they compare to Australia? Where is the best country to travel to if you love sport?

See also: Why Australia is the land of the idiot

See also: The fun police are ruining Australia

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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