The Lost Art of Good Sportsmanship

What the hell’s going on with Australian sportsmen? And Australian sportswomen for that matter? Actually – what is the collective noun for male and female sportspeople? Or is that it – ‘sportspeople‘? Sounds a bit highbrow, doesn’t it? Seems somehow inappropriate in the context of people who play sport. But I’m also loathe to call them ‘sports stars’, because I’m convinced the celebrity status to which many of them are raised is probably a good chunk of the problem.

What problem? Well to start with, let me clarify what I’m not talking about. I’m not talking about Shane Warne-style SMS-related silliness. That stuff is just an example of how poor choices and blokey behaviour are broadly deemed to be acceptable and can see a former professional sportsman retain his iconic status, however questionable his behaviour. That kind of thing is also proof of how some sportspeople fundamentally fail to grasp the lofty heights to which they’ve risen in the eyes of “the general public”. In failing to recognise their own celebrity, they also remain blind to how many opportunistic members of the said “general public” will be more than willing to take advantage of them at the first sign of weakness. Shane Warne is a prime example of all of these things. However many saucy text messages he sent to however many random women (and regardless of how much noise those women did or didn’t make about receiving them), despite potentially ransacking a marriage or three, irrespective of whether he smoked like a chimney and ended up on the plumper side of ‘cuddly’, notwithstanding the fact that he got a contract with the Advanced Hair Replacement Studio, then lathered fake tan all over himself, lost 30kg and now looks like some bizarre hybrid of Enrique Iglesias and Elton John… in spite of all of this (or maybe because of it) Shane Warne is still the iconic Aussie hero. And in the end he’s shagging Liz Hurley, so the rest of it would hardly seem to be of any consequence.

No, the problem I’m talking about is the increasing number of ‘scandals’ that have enveloped our sportspeople during the last decade and especially over the past few years – scandals that have been largely triggered by poor, anti-social or illegal behaviour.

Australian footballers seem to be the worst offenders. Since the early 2000s there’ve been countless examples of utterly shameful behaviour by Australian footballers. Whether in hotel rooms, nightclub bathrooms or out in public, whether alone or in a group, the list of socially unacceptable behaviours exhibited by professional footballers – mostly young men without sufficient maturity to deal with either their celebrity status or their oodles of cash – is almost endless.

Drugs: look up the term “repeat offender” in any online dictionary and surely you’ll find “Ben Cousins” as its definition. Cousins is a 34-year-old man who appears to’ve had a voracious appetite for drugs and alcohol for many years. After ten seasons of professional football, it all started to unravel for Ben Cousins, but throughout it all he was supported by the AFL – warnings, fines, paid rehabilitation, then he was sacked, then he was de-registered and suspended for a year, then taken on by another club only to “retire” at the end of the 2010 season. As a high-profile and a once high-performing professional sportsman, Cousins’ every move was being closely scrutinised by the media, so there was little question that what he got up to was common knowledge by the time of his so-called “retirement”. Having already been warned, fined, sacked and suspended, how lovely for him to still be able to “retire” with some dignity intact – not sure if he was entirely deserving of it, but what-the-hey. They even made a “woe is me” tear-jerking documentary dedicated to Cousins and his penchant for all things contraband. Awesome example set for the kiddies: if you’re a famous sportsman who gets hooked on illicit substances, the entire country will feel sorry for you.

Assault: last Wednesday, 18-year-old Jake Galvin and a former schoolmate were convicted of assaulting and robbing a 77-year-old pizza delivery driver on the Gold Coast in 2010. Galvin, only a year into a two-year contract with the Penrith Panthers, had his contract torn in half on Thursday. As if to soften the blow in light of Galvin’s part in the sickening, cowardly act the Club’s statement read more like a reference letter for a much-loved employee who’d resigned from a long-held job of their own volition and on good terms. “Jake’s behaviour and work ethic since arriving at the Panthers had been nothing short of exemplary. The Panthers wish Jake all the best with his future endeavours” – awesome! Except he never told them that he’d played a part in a 77-year-old man ending up unconscious on the ground (the victim also later suffered a heart attack on the way to hospital). He somehow overlooked telling them that he stole $51 worth of pizza from the same man as he lay unconscious on the ground, then went to a friend’s house and casually consumed the pizza while watching the State of Origin. He also forgot to mention that he did nothing through the course of the ensuing night to alert anyone to the fact that his innocent victim was left unconscious on the ground. And even though he did allegedly disclose that an investigation into an ‘incident’ was underway when he signed his contract with Penrith, he allegedly didn’t disclose the nature of the incident and also allegedly claimed he was sure it would be cleared up without further action. Exemplary behaviour at the Club notwithstanding, his absolute dishonesty and lack of moral integrity are probably the more stand-out personality traits right now.

Rape scandals: whether they’re ever found guilty or not, there’s an inordinate number of footballers who get themselves stonkingly drunk and then place themselves in situations where accusations of rape can be levelled against them. Allegations were made against several unnamed Bulldogs players following a pre-season incident in 2004 (charges were eventually dropped). There were accusations against two St Kilda players in 2004 (charges were never laid), another St Kilda player in 2009 (later charged with rape), two Collingwood players in 2010 (charges were never laid) and a Hawthorn player and his life-long friend in 2010 (both were found not guilty this year).

Compromising photos: the dual scourge of digital photography and the interweb have lead to numerous high-profile ‘scandals’ over the last few years. Somehow, there’s been a raft of footballers who’ve managed to find themselves in compromising situations while in the presence of someone with a camera. By 2012 I’d have thought that most high-profile people – particularly younger ones – would’ve developed a heightened awareness of the multitude of devices that can be used to take still or video images, but apparently footballers don’t seem too bothered. In more cases than not, the compromising photos that eventually find their way onto the internet were posed, as opposed to secretly snapped. In at least one recent example the dumbf*ck in the photo actually took the picture himself! It’d almost be laughable if only the ensuing ‘scandals’ didn’t get them so much publicity.

In 2009 it was Todd Carney taking a sneaky self pic of his reflection in the bathroom mirror with his phone, wearing nothing but Y-fronts. What a brouhaha that was! As self-pics in your undies go, Carney’s was about as tame as they get and almost certainly wouldn’t have gotten as much attention as it did, were it not for his already well-established reputation for frequenting nightclubs, drinking shitloads of alcohol, urinating on people, an unfortunate tendency to drive motor vehicles while extremely drunk and his awful habit of being picked up by the police while doing so.

In late 2010, Joel Monaghan’s local football career was swept away in a hilarious tsunami of bestiality-related scandal. When the blowjob-from-a-dog picture went viral, the media reported that “disgraced Monaghan has expressed remorse and disgust after a photograph of him simulating a sex act with a dog was published on the internet”. Shortly thereafter Monaghan was “released” from his contract with the Canberra Raiders “at his request” and was almost immediately snapped up by the same English Super League team his big brother played for. Never ones to shy away from a good scandal, those Poms. I’m also pretty confident that Monaghan recovered from his “remorse and disgust” reasonably quickly.

Then, just before Christmas 2010 three St Kilda players became embroiled in a football scandal of soap opera proportions. Various other parties were also among the collateral damage as a 17-year-old schoolgirl, described by one journo as an “angry young woman”, used her Facebook page to publish two photos of the three players – Nick Reiwoldt, Zac Dawson and Nick Dal Santo – in various states of undress. In both photos, all three men were clearly aware of the camera’s presence, with the ‘third leg’ of the Nicks purposefully exposed in each picture. Now why Reiwoldt and Dawson were in a hotel room, facing each other and posing for the camera whilst Reiwoldt was naked and obviously drawing attention to his nether regions remains open to debate. There’s possibly less to debate about the shot of Dal Santo lying naked on a bed, third leg held to attention, looking straight down the barrel of the camera lens – although the fundamental question of ‘why’ remains unanswered. [As an aside, the ensuing ‘other’ scandal involving the opportunistic 17-year-old schoolgirl turned out to be little more than a farce, a poor little rich girl with too much time and money on her hands, an insatiable (and possibly imaginary) sex life, a penchant for sportsmen, a slack grasp on reality, a somewhat cavalier attitude toward fact and almost no discernible maturity or intellect.]

But seriously, are these guys all dumb as a bucket of rocks or what? It’s not so much a question of what they were all doing at the time – frankly, who cares? It’s more one of why these idiots aren’t more aware of 1) their status as sporting ‘celebrities’ and 2) the wonders of the digital age. No judgements here though – like the Master’s Apprentices 1970 classic says, “do what you wanna do, be who you wanna be, yea-ea-eah”… so they wanna play with other boys’ doodles? Bring it on! They’re into a spot of bestiality? Go for gold! They wanna send naughty self pics to a potential shag, despite her being able to source many more better quality images online? Do it! But whatever they choose to do and however they choose to behave, why oh why oh why can’t they just remember that it’s the twenty-first century, all kinds of photo-taking technology exists and that there’s this little thing called the internet nowadays? Why can’t they maintain an acute awareness of who they are and where they sit in the food chain? And if they do nothing else, can’t they at least make sure there are no sodding cameras anywhere in the vicinity?! No cameras, no phones, no tablets, no camcorders, no laptops, no webcams – how hard can it be?

If it sounds like I have an irrational dislike of footballers by now, I can assure you I most certainly don’t – there are just so many of them who do stupid things! But it isn’t just footballers. Did anyone happen to witness any of the shockingly bad sportsmanship exhibited by some members of Australia’s Olympics team in London earlier this year? (Caroline Wilson, Chief Football Writer for Melbourne’s “The Age” newspaper, captured the whole thing just perfectly in her article “Whinge, whinge, whinge Australia” on 27 July. Take a look – it’s a very entertaining read.

From sour grapes protests and empty threats of non-participation (Natalie Cook’s melodramatic threat of withdrawal if a woman wasn’t selected as Australia’s flag-bearer comes to mind) to the great shining hope of Australian Olympic competition – the new generation of spoilt brats with limited, if any, ability to respond appropriately to the concept of not winning. I’ve ranted previously about Emily Ceebohm’s embarrassing and uncontrollable poolside hysterics, but Olympic Rower Josh Booth really took the cake in London. He was sent home after going on a bender the day after the Men’s Eight competition came to an end. To say that Booth spent “quite some time at the pub” that day would be like saying the Pope’s a little bit Catholic. Following the marathon session, come chucking-out time Booth proceeded to break the windows of a nearby shop and restaurant – yep, I can definitely see why that must’ve seemed the best way to wrap up the day’s proceedings! Part of Booth’s extremely scripted response said it all. “The damage I caused was not motivated by any malicious intent to destroy but was a rather emotional outburst and an inappropriate expression of my disappointment and frustration with our result in a hard fought final.” In other words, I didn’t get what I wanted so I not only took my bat and ball and went home, I also whacked the nearest panes of glass with them along the way. Nice. And there I was thinking rowers were all intelligent, refined, even slightly cultured chaps.

But seriously – WTF?!

We’ve all seen despondent sportspeople at the end of a game they’ve lost. The swell of disappointment they must feel is entirely understandable, especially when competing at professional or Olympic level. But the concept of ‘good sportsmanship’ surely dictates that they pick themselves up, dust themselves off and carry on. There’s nothing to say that carrying on can’t involve going to the pub, even for half a day. But to come out of the pub and break windows? Perhaps a ‘disappointment and frustration-management class’ might be a better option next time? Believe me, I’ve been intoxicated before – greatly and often. On occasions, I’ve probably also been disappointed, frustrated, upset and/or angry at the time. But I’ve never decided that throwing something through a shopfront window was a good idea!

Not forgetting that all of this happened while he was in a foreign country formally representing Australia no less! It’s shameful.

Last week Bernard Tomic was taken down several notches in a Gold Coast court. At all of 20 years of age, Tomic’s no stranger to controversy. Generally his grumpy old Dad’s had a hand in it, but occasionally Tomic himself has been the sole perpetrator. Last week he was found guilty of three separate traffic offences committed on Australia Day this year, while cruising the streets of the Gold Coast in his $150,000 V8 BMW – remember, this was a 19-year-old kid on his Ps driving a car more powerful than he was legally allowed to drive and worth about the same as a decent house deposit for the average Australian. The first two times he was pulled over, he actually stopped. The third time, he failed to stop and sped off, locking himself in his house in a bid to evade police – coz I know if I was a famous sportsman trying to evade police, I’d probably go straight home too. So last week he was placed on a 12 month good behaviour bond and issued with a hefty fine. Something tells me he won’t lose much sleep over the $1000 fine. Said Tomic afterwards, “I was young and immature and that’s what you do at a young age. I’ve had my fun the last year or two, but I have to step up.” Out of the mouths of babes. Exactly how much could he possibly have matured in less than a year anyway? Not by much, if that ill-conceived statement’s any indication. In case your young mind can’t keep an accurate track of time Bernard, it was only ten months ago, not ten years.

And then there’s poor old Nick D’Arcy. What an unfortunate creature. He always looks angry, doesn’t he? It’s like he permanently has the shits with the entire world. Maybe that’s because everything’s always so up and down for him. The first time I ever saw him was when he was being interviewed after breaking some world record or other; he could barely manage to speak and breath at the same time – but see what I mean? A positive and a negative. Then there was the assault scandal – two negatives. Next thing you know, he’s scowling as he heads into court to face the music, then he’s scowling even more as he heads out of court having been convicted of assault – four negatives. Next, he was dropped from the 2008 Olympic team and then from the 2008 World Championships team – so a whole bunch of negatives in 2008. But after winning at the 2012 Australian Swimming Championships (one positive) he was then named as a member of Australia’s 2012 London Olympics swimming team (two positives). Ka-ching! Things were finally on the up for Nick D’Arcy. Before he could get too high from his good fortune though, he found himself apologising for a photo of himself and a fellow swimmer, taken in the US while they were both posing with guns – another negative. Next minute, up popped poor Mr D’Arcy again, this time jeopardising his ability to compete in the 2012 Games at all by declaring himself bankrupt, after being successfully sued for damages by the same person he’d already been convicted of assaulting in 2008 – negative #2. He did eventually make it to the UK for the Games (positive) but D’Arcy’s history of chronic bad luck – even worse than all those awful things that happened in Alanis Morrissette’s “Ironic” – surely dictated that something really bad should’ve happened at this point: the plane he was flying to the UK on should’ve fallen out of the sky just above Heathrow; he should’ve been run over by a London cab on Tottenham Court Rd en route to the Olympic stadium; he should’ve been electrocuted after falling off the platform at Oxford Circus Tube Station onto the live rails below on his way back from a winning swim. But none of these bad things happened – positive! Nick D’Arcy made it all the way into the Olympic semi-finals – another positive! Then, he was eliminated – a negative. Then he had to leave the Games without participating in the Closing Ceremony as his penance for “bringing the sport into disrepute” with the aforementioned stupid gun photo – another negative. Poor Nick D’Arcy. It seems for every couple of things that go right for him, his high-spirits are inevitably thwarted by multiple other things going horribly pear-shaped.

But is it everywhere? Is it everyone? Of course it isn’t. The sad thing is that the very poor behaviour of a few high-profile sportspeople can only reflect badly on their sport and their team mates. This is despite almost every bad situation being alcohol-fuelled and in spite of there being no suggestion that their teammates were involved (other than those who actually were) or that their behaviours were in any way related to their sport, their team or anyone associated with them.

Just look at Cadel Evans as a prime example: a high-profile, high-performing sportsman who not only appears to’ve not been involved with the poor choices of his colleagues, he’s also distanced himself from the whole response to the situation. In an age of incessant celebrity tweeting and Facebook status updates, Evans – the only Australian cyclist to ever win the Tour de France – has maintained a dignified silence in the face of one of professional cycling’s biggest scandals. Despite the mêlée currently engulfing the sport and numerous of its biggest names – Lance Armstrong being the most obvious, but also both the former Coach and the former Vice-President of Cycling Australia, both of whom stood down last month after admitting to taking performance-enhancing drugs during their own cycling careers – Cadel Evans has been a picture of professional pragmatism. There’s no suggestion that Evans himself has taken any performance-enhancing substance and his only really pointed comment, if you could even call it that, was that he believed the media response to the whole thing had been “very hysterical”. He also acknowledged that he could understand why. And he left it at that.

OK so the recent revelations about Armstrong’s not-so-natural ability, the subsequent stripping of every title won over the seven-year zenith of his career and the US Anti-Doping Agency describing him as a “serial cheat who led the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen” are all a bit of a downer. But when was the last time anyone heard of a professional cyclist doing lines of coke in a nightclub bathroom, or breaking shop windows because they didn’t win, or having naked pics posted online, or being accused of rape or getting together with their teammates and an intoxicated young lady for a spot of group sex in a hotel room?

That so many of our sportspeople fail to set the example they should set, particularly for their youngest followers, is sad enough. That good sportsmanship itself appears to be a dying art is truly lamentable.

HELL ON FOUR WHEELS: Sydney’s history of crap roads & crap public transport

Yesterday I discovered that if I caught a train from Parramatta to the Domestic Airport, it would cost me the equivalent of 56c/km. But when I catch the train from the station nearest my home to the Domestic Airport, it costs me $2.79/km. This newfound knowledge has me somewhat flummoxed.

Some context for anyone not familiar with the geography of Sydney: my trip to the Domestic Airport from Parramatta – Sydney’s “other CBD” and the actual geographical centre of the Greater Sydney region – would cover some 30km. It would involve travel time of more than an hour, traversing at least a quarter of the Western Line of Sydney’s rail network to get me into Central Station, where I’d then need to change trains and head back out along the Airport Line to the Domestic Terminal. The train would stop at (give or take) eleven stations along the way – and that’s only if it’s “express”. If I mis-timed it, I could conceivably stop at twenty-three stations along the way, have to change trains more than once and who knows how long it would eventually take me to reach the airport. A one-way ticket would set me back a grand total of $16.80.

Meanwhile, when I jump on the train at my home station, Bardwell Park, and head to the Domestic Airport it’s a 9 minute journey during which the train calls at all three stations between Bardwell Park and the Domestic Airport – all of 5½km away. So why is my journey to the airport only $1.40 less than it would cost me to get there all the way from Parramatta?!

It gets even better. If I catch a train to the Domestic Airport from Mount Victoria – all the way out in the Blue Mountains, halfway between Katoomba and Lithgow – my travel time could exceed three hours, I’d cover a distance of almost 135km and a one-way ticket would set me back $20.20 – or the equivalent of just 22c/km.

What’s with the massive inequity of pricing? Is it some arse-about message from Transport NSW to encourage use of taxis or private cars? Does Transport NSW have a policy of knowingly contributing to Sydney’s already heavily congested road network? Or is it all just some bizarre system of penalising those who live closest to the airport?

There’s something wrong with this picture. In fact when it comes to roads and public transport in NSW, there’s something wrong with most of the picture and it’s been that way for a very long time.

I’ve just spent a handful of days up on Queensland’s beautiful Gold Coast. The greater Brisbane and Gold Coast areas have a combined population of about 2½ million. Almost for that reason alone, I was mightily impressed to witness the GoldLinQ light rail project well underway – Stage 1 will stretch 13km from Southport to Broadbeach, cutting right through the middle of Surfer’s Paradise. Construction started earlier this year and the project’s on track for the system to take its first passengers in 2014, with further stages to follow. A few days ago I also found myself taking a leisurely drive along the Pacific Motorway between Brisbane and Surfer’s Paradise. It’s eight lanes wide – ten in places! And it has numbered exits! Not just arrows pointing towards some arbitrary road or place (possibly useful if I already kinda knew where I was going), but numbered exits, just like highways, freeways and motorways in the US, the UK and Europe. The convenience and useability were self-evident.

Fast forward three days and I’m back home in Sydney, a city with a population approaching 5 million. Suddenly I find myself surrounded by congested, narrow M roads – most of which I never use because, frankly, everything they lead to is just too far away. Most are no more than two lanes in either direction, three at a pinch; some have tolls; almost all have unintuitive signage conventions. I can’t help wondering if the likes of Queensland’s Pacific Motorway leaves them suffering acute performance anxiety. For example, right near where I live is the M5 East Motorway, a section of road that was commissioned just fifteen years ago. Large chunks of the M5 are two lanes in either direction. Then there’s the M4 Western Motorway. Commissioned in 1989, the M4 is a a giant stretch of road that starts way out west where the rain don’t fall – well, not very often anyway – and which ends more than 40km later at Parramatta Road (another of Sydney’s great carparks) in inner-western Strathfield. True, sections of the M4 are as wide as four lanes in both directions but, as with the M5, much of its length extends to a paltry three lanes either way. Then there’s the M2 Hills Motorway, covering more than 35km from the end of the Gore Hill Freeway at Artarmon to the beginning of the M7 Motorway out at Winston Hills – again, it was only commissioned in 1993 and it’s lucky to’ve been any more than two lanes in either direction over most of its length for the majority of its fifteen years in operation.

These motorways were allegedly intended to alleviate the gridlock that was already suffocating much of Sydney’s road network by the 1980s and 90s. Yet somehow, as recently as only fifteen years ago, or even twenty-three years ago when it still couldn’t possibly have made sense, someone clearly put a convincing argument that it was perfectly reasonable to spend billions of dollars on roads so small that they’d be anachronisms before they were even finished. In 2012 that foregone conclusion is played out with monotonous regularity – both the original arterial roads and their intended saviours, the M roads themselves, are clogged to a standstill on a daily basis.

Since the turn of the twentieth century, Sydney residents have been told endless fanciful tales of a transport nirvana, of boundless tracts of land given over to the world’s smoothest-flowing motorways, of the most überefficient and cost-effective networks of public transport, of grand plans to improve, enhance, transform or otherwise ’embiggen’ existing schemes.

There’ve been promises of an extensive and efficient rail network, expansions to the west, to the north-west, to the south-west, to the Northern Beaches, to the Eastern Beaches… but where the NSW Government is concerned, it’s always been a case of short-term thinking. Way back in the 1920s the NSW Government wiped the entire planned Northern Beaches section of the city railway off the board, shelving plans to take the line all the way up to Palm Beach. Following electrification of the network in 1926, there’ve only really been four remotely significant enhancements to it. The first didn’t happen until 1979, the other three all in the last fifteen years… and even then, none of the most recent three could be described as being significant in a ground-breaking, earth-shattering, life-changing kinda way.

Sydney also has an extensive bus network. Many years ago it had one of the world’s most extensive and efficient tram networks too – Sydney’s trams met an untimely end, due to yet another early example of short-sightedness on the part of the NSW Government, more than fifty years ago. Many of today’s bus routes are closely, if not exactly, aligned with old tram routes. In the mid-2000s, when serious questions were raised about the efficiency of Sydney Buses and its contribution to congestion on Sydney roads, the powers-that-be took the very well thought-out decision to put more buses on the road. Anyone who has the utter misfortune of travelling by bus across the Harbour Bridge into the CBD of a weekday morning knows how much more efficient that well thought-out decision made the bus network; anyone with the utter misfortune of driving in the CBD along a bus route of a weekday morning knows exactly what a difference putting more buses on the road continues to make to CBD congestion. Who knows how much worse it will get? What will the impact on the rest of the city be if Nick Greiner’s grand plan for a light rail system along George Street, the very backbone of the CBD, somehow manages to come to fruition? It’s especially concerning given the likelihood that nothing will’ve been done by then to resolve the current stalemate on practically every other transport-related front. Something’s gotta give!

So what’s to be done? How can we live in what’s arguably the biggest and best-known city in Australia and continue to evolve, to attract business and to attract the tourism dollar with such an extensive network of crap roads and crap public transport? Is it, as a friend suggested recently, political motivation – or more accurately, a lack of political motivation? For all the time and money it would take to ‘fix’ the problem in any meaningful way, what political powerbroker is likely to still be in Government by the time the work’s all been done and the original masterstroke is celebrated? And after all, what’s the point of using your influence as a politician to make stuff happen if no one will guarantee you’ll still be around to get the kudos for a job well done?

Whenever I travel interstate, the point is reiterated time and again: every other capital city of every other state in Australia has more efficient roads, more effective public transport and a far better track record with making progress than Sydney does. This city continues to expand and new residents swarm in by the day… so when’s someone finally going to fix ours?