The power of sport to cross cultural divides
In so many ways it looks familiar. Players lining up for their turn to lead, mark the ball, and pass to their team mate leading in the opposite direction. It is the quintessential footy drill.
But with the familiarity comes two big differences. First, despite this being Australian Rules we were not in Australia. And second, every sprinting player left a cloud of dust rising in his wake.
Nauru is a footy mad nation and the Linkbelt Oval is its home of footy. It is the MCG. It may also be the most unique ground in the world of AFL. It is not a field of grass. Rather, footy is played on soft phosphate looking dirt which sits upon a base of coral rock.
The bounce of a ball comes with a puff of dust. In some places falling to the ground after a screamer will occasion a soft landing.
But in many others the coral rock comes through the surface and claims its pound of flesh. Every old timer of Nauruan footy speaks with pride about the skin they have sacrificed to the Linkbelt.
I was there to watch the Nauruan youth team go through their paces in the lead up to the Youth Oceania Cup played in Tonga last week. They looked impressive. With a bit of expert coaching it’s not hard to imagine some of these boys running around in the big time.
The Youth Oceania Cup has seen the best under 16’s from PNG, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Nauru, Samoa, New Zealand and Australia competing for their country.
Australia was represented by our indigenous youth team, the Flying Boomerangs, who have flown the Aussie flag in previous years with tours of PNG and South Africa. This time they met some tough opposition. PNG won the event beating the hosts Tonga in the Grand Final on Monday. The Nauru boys came a creditable fourth.
While the Youth Oceania Cup has been intriguing in its potential to internationalise our uniquely Australian game, a bigger lesson can be drawn from the tournament, namely the power of sport in our foreign relations with the Pacific.
In Australia and the Pacific, nothing seems to rival the power of sport to provide heroes and role models. Having won Commonwealth Gold in Melbourne PNG swimmer Ryan Pini arrived back in Port Moresby to an unprecedented welcome.
The streets were lined with people cheering from the airport to Waigani. When Marcus Stephen won his first Commonwealth Gold in weightlifting in Auckland there were similar scenes back in Nauru. Today he is the President of his country.
In addition to producing heroes sport evokes passions and in PNG the passion is rugby league. The national team, the Kumuls, may have struggled in the recent four nations tournament in Australia, but it didn’t diminish a surge in national pride back home when they watched their red, black and yellow jerseys taking on the big boys.
Like the Pacific, in Australia we don’t just watch sport – we understand its power.
In central Australian communities like Amata and Papunya, a discussion about life will draw comment about the community store, the growing rate of diabetes and the lack of work. It will also draw thoughts about who’s playing centre half forward and the likelihood of knocking off Yuendumu on Saturday. A positive meaning for life is found through footy and netball.
And in my home town of Geelong there is nothing closer to the soul of the city than our beloved Cats. The team becomes the symbol of cultural unity for our region. It is the projection of our town to the country. That the Cats are doing well in the AFL is symbolic of how the town is emerging as one of the most vibrant regions in Australia.
In a diplomatic environment where cultural differences abound between Australians, Melanesians and Polynesians, a love of sport becomes a powerful and important point of cultural commonality.
It transcends recreation and becomes a source of identity. It also becomes a wonderful tool to promote important social messages through role models and to positively influence behaviour.
All of which is why the AFL, the NRL, and other sporting organisations in our country play an unheralded and vital diplomatic role in the Pacific. There is a genuine fondness for Australia in the nations of the Pacific. Sport has a lot to do with it.
So as the boys from Nauru took on our own indigenous footballers in Tonga last week, we should all dip our hats to the AFL.
The Youth Oceania Cup may have been inspired to unearth new fields of talent for the big league but it also carried our flag in a profound way.
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