A sporting nation

People say that Australia’s biggest religion is sport and there is a long history of migrants stamping their mark upon this focal point in Australian life.

Migrants have often been among the most flamboyant of our sports people; entertaining the masses and pioneering new athletic and social frontiers along the way.

A recent A-list of Australia sports talent includes a galaxy of stars who originally hail from elsewhere.

Former Socceroo’s coach Ange Postecoglou is from Greece, Cricketer Usman Kawaja was born in Pakistan, women’s cricketer Meg Lanning is from Singapore, Tennis star Daria Gavrilova is originally from Russia, former player Jelena Dokic was born in Croatia, Rugby star Will Genia hails from Papua New Guinea, former Collingwood and Melbourne AFL star Hertier Lumumba is Brazilian, and North Melbourne and Fremantle champion Peter Bell was born in South Korea.

Young Sudanese-Australian athletes Majak Daw and Thon Maker represent a group that has attracted negative publicity recently, with their cultural values called into question by a spate of gang violence by youths of Sub-Saharan appearance.

As Daw has progressed to make his mark upon North Melbourne’s senior side in the AFL, he has experienced the racism.

His time developing in the AFL was attention-grabbing for multiple reasons. As well as his stunning running goal from outside 50 his public recognition also grew over a racial incident with a Port Melbourne fan which made the 195cm, 97 kilogram refugee “feel really small”.

Daw’s conduct as a role-model and multi-cultural ambassador for the AFL has drawn broad admiration, with the then Victorian Premier Ted Bailleau labelling him a “hero” for his tactful reaction to the incident.

Second-year NBA player Thon Maker has been receiving similar plaudits within his own sport.

Maker overcame controversy over his estimated age, the result of his disrupted youth fleeing the Second Sudanese Civil War, to be drafted at 10h in the first-round of the NBA draft in 2016 draft.

Future NBA Hall-of-Fame inductee Kevin Garnett, who himself was renowned for his leadership and drive, has pinpointed Maker as a future MVP after training with him last year.

While the first games of Soccer in Australia are believed to have occurred as early as the 1860s, its popularity was extremely low until after WWII.

Between 1945 and 1985, four million Europeans immigrated to Australia, struggling to adapt linguistically and culturally and with many carrying memories of the region’s brutal conflicts.

Requiring a safe space in which to deal with these issues, many immigrants founded social clubs to connect with and help one another. Particularly among South Europeans, these social clubs often doubled as football clubs, organising games between themselves in line with their own cultural traditions.

Even today, Soccer has proven so effective in social integration that 44 per cent of first-generation migrants credit an involvement with the sport as significantly aiding their migrant experience.

Among Australian soccer history’s most famous clubs are South Melbourne Hellas, Sydney Croatia and the Marconi Stallions, their names proud reference to their establishment within specific communities to tackle the issues facing all immigrants.

So pronounced was the South European influence on Soccer, it was colloquially termed “wogball,” referencing a somewhat vague derogatory term given to Lebanese and certain European migrants.

Today, Australian soccer has exploded to become the most-played sport in our nation.

The newly-created A-League doesn’t include any of the old ethnic powerhouse clubs, as it desires clubs to represent cities rather than groups, but the influence of immigrant families on the sport is still plainly evident at all levels of the game.

National-team coach Ange Postecoglou emigrated from Greece, while captain Mile Jedinak and a host of other current elite players are the descendants of the same Post-WWII wave of European migration. Current Football Federation Australia (FFA) chairman Steven Lowy is continuing the tradition of his Czechoslovakian refugee father Frank Lowy’s leadership in the sport.

The Sport’s most loved media personality in Australia, Les Murray, has documented his terrifying experience crossing the Hungarian border to Austria to escape Soviet occupation.

Les has been recognized for his immense contribution to the game with an inclusion to the FFA Hall of Fame.

There isn’t space here to mention all those who deserve it, ranging from Russian-born boxer Kosta Tsyzu and his compatriot, pole-vaulter Tatiana Grigorieva, to Polish-born Gold-Medal-winning swimmer Michael Klim and even the kiwi-born legend of Australian horse-racing, Phar Lap.

The achievements of women’s cricketer Lisa Sthalekar, however, reach beyond sport as female athletes continue to strive for equivalent recognition both within Australia and abroad.

Sthalekar was adopted from an orphanage in the Indian state of Maharashtra, after her biological parents were forced to give her up as they were unable to support her.

Arriving to Australia via the United States and Kenya, Sthalekar initially favored Tennis over Cricket, because she “didn’t realise Women’s cricket existed.”

Eventually, Sthalekar encountered the grassroots female communities practicing sports outside of the limelight. With male professionals such as Adam Gilchrist and Sachin Tendulkar has her idols, she excelled, attaining her first international cap in an ODI against England in 2001.

Going on to become the world’s number one ranked all-rounder, her achievements including a masterful Ashes century and being the only woman to ever achieve 1000 runs and 100 wickets in ODI games.

She was Cricket Australia’s number-one contracted player, albeit for a mere $15,000 a year. As female cricket gains coverage and finance, Cricket Australia has recently announced that it will increase the average salary of a female national representative to $179,000, still a smidgeon of the $900,000 afforded male players.

This change has come about in no small way due to the eye-catching efforts of Sthalekar and her silverware-collecting team; and now Sthalekar is breaching another traditionally white, male sphere of sporting occupation: the commentators’ box.

As speakers for their industry, commentators have a significant impact on the way sports are perceived in Australia, and cricket in particular has a history of resistance to change in this representation.

Yet change is coming in Australian sport, and Lisa Sthaleker is a female immigrant who has been leading the way her entire adult life, unbound by the challenges she’s faced.

Sport is essential to the fabric of Australian life, with change in one closely intertwined with the other. Both have been equally enriched by the contributions of migrants.

By Tom Danks