Should we care about recent sporting losses to England (and Great Britain)? Not really. While defeating the British is always preferable, sporting defeat can help stimulate both interest and a better standard, that enables sweet revenge.
Australia and Great Britain have longstanding rivalry in certain team sports, with both enjoying some success.
While England looks like retaining the Ashes, Australia held them from 1989 to 2005. England won the first Twenty20 world championship (2010), yet Australia has won four World Cups in the 50-over format (1987, 1999, 2003, 2007), a competition England is yet to win. In the female version, England won the last women’s cricket World Cup (2009), yet Australia won in 1997 and 2005.
Australia continues its domination of Great Britain in rugby league since 1974, and Australia has won two rugby World Cups (1991 and 1999) compared to England’s one (2003).
At men’s soccer, England is ranked sixth by FIFA compared to Australia 20th (November 17, 2010), although England has made the World Cup semi-finals just once (1990) since its only victory in 1966. I wish we could play England more times at soccer, a relatively less popular football code in Australia.
It was both enjoyable and hilarious when Australia beat England 3-1 in 2003. In women’s soccer, England ranks 10th and Australia 12th, although neither has made the semi-finals of the World Cup since its inception in 1991.
At netball, England is closing the gap against Australia and New Zealand, yet has never won a world championship or Commonwealth Games. Australia has won 11 of 16 such tournaments.
In men’s golf, Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell won the 2010 US Open, with Geoff Ogilvy the last Australian to win one of the four majors (US Open 2006). Since 1990, Brits have won six golf majors compared to Australia’s five, although both have won just one each since 2000. In female golf, Australian women have won seven majors with the Brits winning four.
Of tennis grand slam finals since 1990, Australia’s men have won four and were runner-up six times compared to no victories for the Brits and three runner-ups. In female tennis, no Aussie or Brit has won since 1990, and only one Australian (Samantha Stosur) finished runner up (2010 French Open).
So what do the above sporting results indicate?
Well, outside rugby, cricket and netball, sports where there are few top-class rivals, it is extremely hard to win global sporting events.
Considerable attention should be given to global team sport success. While England has never won a hockey Olympic Games or World cup, although its men and women came fourth and second in 2010, Australia’s men won in 2004 and 2010 while its women won in 2000.
And, given that basketball is one of the biggest team sports in the world, Australia’s women winning the 2006 world championship was a major achievement.
It is testimony to the competitive nature of Australians and Brits that both do so well in many sports. After all, the standard of world sport has come a long way since the 1950s when Australia and the US dominated tennis, and Australia came fourth in the medal count at the 1956 Olympic Games winning 13 gold medals (eight in swimming and four on the track).
Since 1990, Australians and/or Brits have won world championships or Olympic titles in various sports popular in both countries, including many major motor sports, running, snooker, swimming, cycling, surfing, and boxing (with its multitude of federations). In triathlon world championships alone, Australia’s men and women have won 45 medals (18 gold) of a possible 126 compared to Great Britain with 15 (nine gold).
But the sporting success of Australia and Great Britain has also been boosted by significant public resources going into elite sport.
Inspired by Australia’s fourth place at the 2000 Olympic Games, a success story that began with government assistance after Australia did not win one gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympic games, Great Britain too has poured substantial public funds into elite sport program.
While the Australian government in 2010 again increased spending for elite sport to $237 million over four years, the UK Government (March 2006) announced an additional £200m of Exchequer funding for high performance sport through to 2012, in addition to the £60m per year (on average) already invested towards Olympic and Paralympic success.
An additional £100m was sought through private investment.
Now Great Britain is even challenging Australia in its most successful sport in historical and world terms, swimming. At the 2009 world championships, Australia’s men and women won 16 medals (three gold) compared to Great Britain’s seven medals (two gold), yet just two years earlier Australia had won 21 medals (nine gold) compared to Great Britain with four medals (no gold).
And Australia and Great Britain are now winning medals in sports where they previously had little pedigree.
At the 2010 Artistic gymnastics championships, Australia’s men and women won two medals (one gold) and Great Britain three (one gold), although far behind China with nine (four gold).
In rowing, Great Britain and Australia were the only nations to win two gold medals at the 2008 Olympic Games. At the 2010 World Championships, Great Britain’s men and woman won nine medals (four gold) compared to Australia’s eight (one gold).
In track cycling, while Great Britain won 12 medals (seven gold) at the 2008 Olympic Games, Australia’s men and women won 10 medals (six gold) at the 2010 world cycling track championships compared to Great Britain’s nine (three gold). Out of a possible 57 medals available in 2010, Australia and Great Britain won 19 medals (33 per cent).
Resources matter, but they do not always explain international sporting success.
While Australia and Great Britain are now major powers in some of the bigger Summer Olympic Games sports, such as cycling, swimming and rowing, it has been much poorer nations that rivaled the US in the biggest Olympic sport of them all, running. At the 2008 Olympic Games, while Australia’s men and women won one silver and Great Britain two medals (one gold), Kenya, Jamaica and Ethiopia alone won 32 (16 gold) of the available 78 medals.
Again, at the 2009 world championships, with Great Britain won two minor medals and Australia zip, Kenya, Jamaica and Ethiopia won a further 32 medals (11 gold) from running.
But we should not lose sleep. Even communist China with its 3000 government-run sports schools (about 400,000 students) by 2005, often systematically selecting children matching certain body types for certain sports, is light years away from winning everything in its quest to dominate and/or impress the world.
While China led the gold medal count at the 2008 Summer Olympics (51), it won just one (of nine medals) in athletics, swimming and cycling.
So what is the key for liberal democracies interested in balancing a community’s participation along with a desire to inspire through international sporting success? Of course, liberal democracies have to ensure that community needs are met rather than helping elite sport alone.
While the Australian government in 2010 again increased sport spending to $324.8 million over four years, community sport got $71 million and Paralympic programs $16 million, although other levels of government also contribute significantly in terms of community sporting facilities and programs.
It remains to be seen what will happen in the UK after its government recently announced reduced sports funding to meet budget targets. While Sport England, the body responsible for community sport, saw its funding cut by 33 per cent over four years, and UK Sport (elite athletes) faced a 28 per cent reduction, these losses were to be offset by more cash from the National Lottery.
However, projects run by the Youth Sport Trust with Department for Education money, involving 450 School Sport Partnerships, was completely withdrawn by the Department for Education (£160m a year).
The Youth Sport Trust had helped increase the number of youngsters playing at least two hours of sport at school from almost two million in 2004 to more than six and a half million in 2010.
No matter what happens in the future, as sports funding may come under greater budgetary pressure, the evidence suggests that Australia will balance elite and community sporting needs and long give the British a beating in many sports, just as it always has.