Lest we forget, sport is not war

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Along with the traditional ANZAC Day matches in both the AFL and NRL, the Fremantle Dockers will pay tribute to ANZAC in the Len Hall Tribute Game to be held on Friday night.

Hall was a member of the Light horse Brigade who fought at both Gallipoli and Beersheba during WW1.

He survived the nightmare assault at the Nek (the battle famously depicted in Peter Weir’s film ‘Gallipoli’) that C.E.W. Bean described thus: “The dead lay so thick on the ground, the only respect retreating diggers could pay them was not to tread on their faces.”

Len Hall was with the Australian contingent when Lawrence of Arabia and the Allies marched into Damascus.

He was also an avid footy man and the link to his memory is a poignant one for West Australian football fans. Hall died in 1999 as the last Gallipoli veteran from WA.

There is a lot to like about sports wanting to pay homage to those that have served and fallen in armed service.

There is a lot admirable in the willingness to show that we are able to remember the solemn and bloody sacrifice that so many men and women gave in war.

And events like sporting contests offer a chance for people to come together and remember the deeds of people like Hall who served during armed conflict.

But sport should never be used as a comparative event to the brutality of war.

Len Hall, along with his service, is also famous for this quote made later in his life: ‘Next time I would fight for the Turks. They are good people and it was their land, not ours.’

Hall was not a man enamoured with the farce that was Gallipoli, nor was he a fan of its futility and the subsequent glorification of the tragedy.

He saw Gallipoli for what it was.

It was an ill thought invasion of a sovereign state, one that mercilessly pitted young naïve soldiers from the other side of the world against desperate men defending their families and homeland.

Both groups fought valiantly and many died bravely.

In his excellent opinion piece titled ”It’s ANZAC Day, not the Big Day Out”, Jonathan King laments the gradual wearing away of the reverence with which ANZAC Day was once observed.

Amongst his recollections King also makes mention of the way Australian society has been able to glorify what happened at Gallipoli by drawing on the ANZAC spirit as a means of inspiration, however misguided.

And he specifically references one of this countries greatest sporting achievements, the 1983 Americas Cup victory as an example.

Upon winning the Cup the man who bankrolled the entire operation, Alan Bond stated ‘ this is Australia’s greatest victory since Gallipoli”.

Except that Gallipoli was one big, bloody fiasco and failure that needlessly cost the lives of not only thousands of Australian soldiers but also tens of thousands of Turkish and other troops from the British Empire.

Bond’s statement alluded to Australians misunderstanding of the events at Gallipoli and what it should stand for.

It also spoke to sports growing fondness for affiliating itself with the ‘glories’ of war.

Australian professional sports alignment to war is a relatively modern one.

In the AFL it was illegal to play football on ANZAC day until 1960, and even then games were only sporadic until 1995, when it has become an annual ‘tradition’.

In rugby league the current incarnation of the ‘traditional’ ANZAC day match has only been happening for 12 years.

But ANZAC day now gives sports teams and their coaches the chance to spout analogies comparing the games they play to the tactics and values that arise through battle.

They talk of ‘celebrating’ the ANZAC spirit through sport; but sport is not war, and ANZAC day is not a celebration.

Don’t get me wrong I watch and cheer the deeds of the players in the ANZAC Day games and am always excited by the spectacle.

Indeed it must be said that the matches are valuable tools in educating the public on why ANZAC day is observed, and I feel the games played on this day are valid forms of remembrance.

But I also recoil any time a comparison between sport and war is made.

I feel sports do themselves and the ANZAC memory no favours by comparing, however loosely, the competition on the field to battles that have cost people their lives.

As Anthony Green so eloquently wrote on the ABC’s Drum website last year ”ANZAC Day is about their deaths, not our lives”.

Lest We Forget.

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