Can Sports People be Smart People?

In arts circles, it’s long been fashionable to hate sport.

Arts people, after all, are the ones who wore glasses, read in the library at lunchtime and made up elaborate excuses to get out of PE classes. Or wore black clothes with black eyeliner and spent Saturdays dissecting album lyrics in their bedrooms.

Sports people don’t read. They don’t follow politics. They don’t think. They’re all about the body, not the mind.

Of course, this is rubbish.

Yes, there are arts people who develop migraines at the mere sight of a ball. Yes, there are sports people who wouldn’t be seen dead near a library or bookshop. But there’s a huge grey area in the middle.

The literary editor of the Age, Jason Steger, began his career as a sports writer. So did former literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Malcolm Knox – who has since been immersed in both the literary and sporting worlds. He is a novelist and writes regularly on cricket, for newspapers and in books.

Malcolm Knox: 'Prejudice against sport is just as silly as prejudice against the arts.’

Malcolm Knox: 'Prejudice against sport is just as silly as prejudice against the arts.’

‘I feel that sport is as meaningful and worthy a field of endeavour as painting or music, or just about anything,’ Knox told Kill Your Darlings recently. ‘In Australia, because sports have been so dominant in our culture, there’s a real reaction against it in the community. The arts is all about being anti-sport … But I have a strong feeling we should have grown out of that. Prejudice against sport is just as silly as prejudice against the arts.’

Sport has been at the heart of three of Knox’s four novels; all of them have attracted serious literary acclaim, here and in the UK. A Private Man featured an Australian test cricketer, Jamaica followed four friends competing in an ocean-swimming race and The Life tells the story of a washed-up former champion surfer, now living with his mother in a Gold Coast retirement home (drawing on real-life surfer Michael Peterson for inspiration).

Christos Tsiolkas told Jennifer Byrne last year that his next novel will be about a young boy with enormous swimming talent, who wants to be an Olympic swimmer (and fails). ‘To me, it’s a book about failure,’ he said. He chose the sports metaphor to explore his theme partly because ‘I’m an Australian, so of course I think in terms of sports.’

Gideon Haigh: 'What I try to bring to sports writing is that you shouldn’t just check your brain at the door.'

Gideon Haigh: 'What I try to bring to sports writing is that you shouldn’t just check your brain at the door.'

Gideon Haigh is one of Australia’s best and most respected sports writers. No one could accuse him of being anything less than smart. At an Adelaide Writers Festival session in 2008, fellow sports writer John Harms amused the crowd with a perfectly illustrative anecdote. ‘I remember being in the Sydney press box one time and Gideon had the latest Wisden in his hands, looking at it very studiously. Peter Roebuck walked past and said, ‘You found any mistakes this year, Gideon?’ (His response, which had the crowd roaring in laughter: ‘A lot of people assume there are no mistakes in Wisden, and I can tell them otherwise.’)

Haigh points out that some of our most respected literary writers – like David Malouf and the late Dorothy Porter – are ‘mad keen sports fans and don’t find anything anti-intellectual about that fascination with watching sport’.

Yet, he believes it’s hard to find Australian sports writing that is also smart –and worth reading for more than just information. Part of the problem, he says, is with the way it’s presented in newspapers, where most sports writing is done. ‘It’s ghettoised,’ he says. Having sport in its own separate section means it’s only going to be read by sports enthusiasts, rather than general readers, who are then excluded from a significant part of Australian culture.

William McInnes: 'We don’t have much structured religion these days, so I guess structured sport can in some way take that place in the community.’

William McInnes: 'We don’t have much structured religion these days, so I guess structured sport can in some way take that place in the community.’

‘All of us are affected by it, even if we don’t participate because we don’t like it,’ says William McInnes, actor, writer (The Cricket Kings) and sports enthusiast. ‘I firmly believe it’s a fantastic thing for kids to play sport in their teens. They work out how they can be part of a larger group. We don’t have much structured religion these days, so I guess structured sport can in some way take that place in the community.’

David Malouf agrees. He told Haigh that sport is ‘the only area in Australia where we experience a kind of moral education. There is an expectation in Australia that you will adhere to fundamental tenets of fair play and they’re good preparations for fair play in other areas of your daily experience as an Australian citizen.’

‘It is possible to write quite seriously about sport in Australia,’ says Haigh. ‘And it’s important, because it’s such a big and important part of our culture. It can’t be regarded as separate … What I try to bring to sports writing is that you shouldn’t just check your brain at the door. I try not to suspend my critical and analytical faculties. I try to speak about sport as though it matters.’

Gideon Haigh will be a guest at the Wheeler Centre this Friday 17 February, talking about Melbourne sport and major events with Angela Pippos and Perry Crosswhite, as part of our free events series, Ideas for Melbourne. Bookings recommended.

Sport and Major Events (6.15pm-7.15pm, Friday 17 February) is the final in the series, which will be running all through this week, each weekday evening.

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