IT STARTED with a shove to the floor, followed by an elbow to the head. Punches were thrown, then chairs.
It could have been a pub fight or a car park brawl except that it happened in front of the planet at the basketball World Cup qualifiers. And Australia was at the centre of it.
T hirteen players were ejected and play delayed for half an hour after the Boomers and the Philippines went hell for leather in what one commentator called “sad, disgraceful, deplorable and horrid scenes”.
Granted, the Australians may not have started the fight but it was still an unedifying display from the sportspeople we admire and our kids look up to. Moreover, it raises questions about who we are as a nation of sports lovers. Not just how we see our sporting heroes but how we see ourselves.
It’s been a bruising few years for Australian sport. Our cheating cricketers and temperamental tennis players have made international headlines and now we’re back in the spotlight following the ugly on-court antics of the Boomers.
“This is not the spirit in which sport should be played,” Basketball Australia chief executive Anthony Moore admitted in the wake of the violent scenes. It was a damning judgment but Australians have heard such things said about their sporting idols before.
Take the wild child of Australian tennis Nick Kyrgios. The rising star is known for being rude towards umpires, simulating a sex act with a water bottle between sets and telling an opponent during a losing match someone had “banged his girlfriend”.
He’s also sworn live on air, argued with spectators and yelled at a ball boy. In 2016, after appearing to put in no effort during a match at the Shanghai Masters, a chair umpire told him: “You can’t play like that, okay? That’s not professional … we have to act professional and play with your best effort the whole time”.
Australia has reacted to his unsportsmanlike conduct with fury and disappointment. We pride ourselves on being a nation of sun-kissed sporting greats but the way we win matters.
Fairness in sport is not a new concept, or indeed unique to Australia. In Ancient Greece — arguably the birthplace of modern competitive sport — the Olympic athletes had to swear before the statue of Zeus they would not cheat. They faced being beaten with wooden rods for failing to uphold their oath.
Australia’s cricketers were given a flogging of a different kind after the ball tampering scandal earlier this year. It stunned the nation, made headlines worldwide and claimed the scalps of our captain, vice-captain and a junior player. Cricket legend Adam Gilchrist said it made us “the laughing stock of the sporting world”.
Moreover, it illustrated the disconnect between what they players considered to be appropriate on field behaviour and public expectation. The cricketers had forgotten the golden rule of competitive sport; it is about them but for us. They had played foul of the rules behind our backs, letting us down while shutting us out.
Modern Australia was founded by people who were sent here for breaking the rules, which is perhaps why we are still so sensitive about it. Only by becoming law abiding citizens could they turn the hell of their sentence into the potential utopia of the new world. Maybe for this reason we are so obsessed by the notion of playing fair.
Unlike the other great new continent, America, which was built around the power of the individual to achieve his wildest dreams, the Australian psyche was built around people working together for the greater good in the spirit of mateship and fair play. Nowhere is this more epitomised than on the sporting field.
Australia’s greatest foundational legend, the landing at Gallipoli, is built solely around the idea of camaraderie. As a military operation it was a disaster, in terms of leadership it was a fiasco, in terms of individual heroics there were few if any recorded, but all this was deemed second to the spirit of brotherly devotion and sense of duty to one’s fellow man.
A hundred years later we still expect to see those qualities on the field of combat of the sporting arena. So when sportsmen and women so callously and carelessly flout those values we react more viscerally than any other nation on earth.
Marathon champion Steve Moneghetti hinted at this when he told our Commonwealth athletes in 2010: ‘‘Australians are fantastic competitive sports people on the playing arena but we are a very fair and good country off it and that’s what we want to display, good sportspersonship.’’
Maybe it is not us who need to live up to the values of our sporting heroes but they who need to live up to ours.
– Tara Ravens has worked as a journalist for over 15 years, working for the Australian Associated Press in politics, world and entertainment. She also spent four years in Darwin as the Northern Australia correspondent. She still misses wearing thongs to work.