Wednesday 05 August 2020

Australian myopia and the origins of football

Published as ‘Evidence the key to our game’s origins’, The Age, Saturday 31 May 2008, Insight, p. 9.

Perhaps we might make a little more sense out of the arguments which have been going on about Aboriginal influences on the origins of football in this country if we looked beyond our shores. I suggest three places. The first is the United Kingdom where there is a very similar argument going on about the relative importance of the university men who codified the rules of Association Football in the mid-nineteenth century and those ‘lesser breeds without the law’ who played football in various parts of the country and made rules for it and had small sided games and didn’t just engage in mayhem. These outsiders do not figure largely in the dominant stories of the origins of football in Britain, but the careful empirical research of a number of scholars including Neil Tranter, John Goulstone, Richard Holt, Adrian Harvey, John Hutchinson, Alan Metcalfe and Hugh Hornby has cumulatively shown how important they were. Not necessarily in writing the rules, but in explaining why there was such an explosion of popularity of the game in the United Kingdom in the second half of the nineteenth century. What unites all these researchers is that they have spent hours searching for contemporary evidence of what was actually taking place around the country. In one sense they have it easier. They are dealing with a literate society which has left much conventional written material, but they also wrestle with other forms of communication including oral traditions. They don’t accept the oral traditions as gospel, but subject them to testing and triangulation and realise that what is handed down in stories from one generation to another changes according to many influences, including modern political and ideological concerns.

The second place is East Africa where imperialists and colonists discovered many strange practices. The classic case was Tutsi high jumping. If you went to visit the king he would send a couple of his young men to jump over you, to put you in your place and show your relative subordinate position. Needless to say people marvelled at the athletic feat, and perhaps unsurprisingly the German colonists in East Africa produced some iconic images, one of which showed a young Tutsi leaping over a bar suspended between two forked sticks with the Duke of Mecklenburg standing almost underneath. The heights achieved appeared to be well above the world record for the high jump at the time. But you can scour the records of the Olympic games or athletic meetings and you will not find any Tutsi high jumpers. As John Bale puts it the Europeans ‘imagined Olympians’ thinking that these skills would translate into athletic performance to stagger the world. But they did not.

Similarly, in our third case, when the Australian Society for Sports History published an article by a Chinese scholar Professor Ling Hongling, of Northwest Normal University in Lanzhou, arguing that golf had originated in China from the practice of chuiwan, there was an international furore led by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. The article was complete with illustrations showing Chinese participants swinging clubs at balls and knocking them into pits in the ground, and the Professor argued ‘we may safely deduce that it is due to the propagation of Chinese Chuiwan that golf has been able to emerge in the West as a mature game’. The R&A begged to differ. ‘Stick and ball games have been around for centuries but golf as we know it today—played over 18 holes—clearly originated in Scotland’, was its reaction. The R&A’s imperial view is reflected on its website:‘At the China Golf Development Forum held in Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, the R&A Director of Golf Development, Duncan Weir, presented a commemorative plate to the Vice Executive Chairman of the China Golf Association, Mr Hu, to mark 20 years of golf in China’.

So ancient and ongoing cultural activities may translate into or influence modern sports, but they may not and we need to examine what happened in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century very closely if we are to answer the questions raised about Aboriginal influence on the early inchoate years of what became Australian Rules. We will short change Aboriginal people and indeed the people of Australia if we don’t do the same sort of research in Australian history.

John Harms’ suggestion in his excellent account of the debate in Insight last week that ‘indigenous Australians should not have to prove their story to the community’ will just not do. It undermines the very people it is designed to protect. Of course the oral tradition is important, as it is in other societies, but untriangulated, unexamined, untested it is not history. The same, of course, applies to all varieties of Australian and world history including the oral components about which I have been researching and writing since the 1960s.

Martin Flanagan has conceded there is no evidence of Aboriginal influence on the drawing up of the rules. But he thinks that through Tom Wills there was an influence on the early inchoate game. That to me is possible, though the things we know about his innovations include the shape of the ball and perhaps the Geelong running game and a proposal for the rugby crossbar. None of these seem to relate to what little we know about the form of the various Aboriginal games.

My fear, reinforced by John Harms’s last section, is that anyone from a non-indigenous background who raises these legitimate historical questions will be pilloried by journalists and others as anti-Aboriginal. So let me say I will be delighted if we can find the evidence of the type which has emerged from disciplined historical research in the United Kingdom to show that there was a link between indigenous games and our fledgling game, but at the moment I have to remain sceptical.

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