Australia Day is one of the primary times when people make the pledge of commitment, becoming Australian citizens during a citizenship ceremony. It may also be one of the only times when people consider their concept of national identity – their Australianness.
The resource book that potential citizens use to prepare for the citizenship test claims that “sport has both characterised the Australian people and united us”, citing the heroic figure of the cricketer Sir Donald Bradman.
Heroes embody the values and norms of a particular society and athletes continue to be considered heroic. However, an examination of Bradman and other heroes, reveals much about the nation’s identity and who is accepted as “Australian”.
The Don, described in this citizenship book as “an Australian sporting legend”, is often presented as a naturally talented “boy from the bush”. Throughout his career, he was portrayed as an underdog from the country, battling against his more advantaged, city-born superiors or the English.
The battler from the bush narrative is an image known to many Australians. It features prominently in the stories surrounding many athletes and is not just confined to sport. It can be found in many aspects of Australian culture and fits into the pattern of ancient hero myths that tell of a boy facing various trials before returning triumphant.
Previous Australian mythical types include the bushman, the digger, and surf lifesavers. All are typically Anglo-Celtic, masculine “mates”, heroically struggling to overcome adversity. Women and those who do not match these types have largely been excluded, unless, perhaps, they are shown to be suitably larrikin in their nature.
Kevin Sheedy, the former Essendon and GWS GIANTS head coach, is a legendary figure within Australian football. Sheedy is a roguish character who often divides opinion and displays disrespect for both authority and his ‘social superiors’. In the media, he is often presented as a larrikin.
His working-class, Anglo-Celtic (Irish) background further position him as a suitably Australian hero. Athletes such as Shane Warne and Dawn Fraser have also been portrayed in a similar manner. Both Warne and Fraser were outstanding athletes but they were also involved in controversy and are loved (by some) for their irreverent behaviour.
Again, the larrikin is not just an Australian narrative and it also draws on wider, mythological accounts of heroes. It can be equated with the “clever hero” or the “trickster”, and has been described as the triumph of brain over brawn.
Such heroes are not against creating controversy but often offset potential offence through the use of humour and wit. This hero type has been traced back to medieval European folklore tales around Reynard the Fox, and is embedded in many Western societies.
Breaking the mould
Nick Kyrgios’ behaviour has clearly positioned him as a larrikin. However, when off-court incidents brought his attitude and conduct into focus, his Australianness has also been questioned, as his parents were born overseas.
The larrikin continues to be primarily associated with the Anglo-Celtic ideals and ethnicity remains a significant factor in Kyrgios’ acceptance (or lack of) by some fans.
Kyrgios is not the only athlete who has not been accepted as sufficiently “Australian”. Others who do not look or sound like the traditional Anglo-Celtic Australian type have been abused and attacked. Even outstanding athletes, such as Adam Goodes, Cathy Freeman and Israel Folau during his time in the AFL, have not been accepted by all fans.
Hero narratives, strongly influenced by concepts of national identity, follow existing, mythical patterns. In Australia, they are usually representative of a narrow definition of traditional Australianness. Those who fall outside of this Anglo-Celtic, masculine type are not always honoured.
If a society’s heroes are an indicator of its values and beliefs, then our definition of national identity may need some work. The acceptance of dominant Anglo-Celtic, masculine narratives needs to be challenged, allowing a culturally diverse community to be embraced.