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The Conversation

  • Written by David Rowe, Professor of Cultural Research, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

For an ostensibly fun-based activity, sport in Australia generates a good deal of anxiety. Questions like the following are often raised:

  • Do enough people participate in it?

  • Are they representative of the whole population?

  • Is enough public and private funding given to the appropriate sports to enable success, especially in the international arena?

  • Do too many people watch sport on TV without playing it?

  • Are some sports over- or under-represented in the media?

  • Is sport a vehicle for unhealthy products and attitudes?

  • Are sport organisations and sportspeople being corrupted by big money, drugs and gambling?

All of these questions go far beyond sport’s most-celebrated contests between professional teams and athletes, and are much richer than its weekly suburban rituals.

Who plays sport and why?

Sport is a particular form of physical culture. What lessons can we learn from who plays it in Australia?

Recent AusPlay data from the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) tell us about both sport and physical activity. The findings must be treated with caution to avoid talking about organised sport when, in fact, describing casual exercise such as swimming and walking.

AusPlay’s survey of more than 20,000 adults – people over 15 years of age – and more than 3,000 parents/guardians of children reported in its key national findings that younger people are more physically active than older people. This is not only because physical education is part of the school curriculum, as almost:

3.2 million children (69%) participated in some form of organised sport or physical activity outside of school hours.

By contrast, it shows sport-related activity fell to only 37% among those aged 65 and over.

Although sport is widely viewed as male-dominated, the survey found adult men and women participate at similar levels across the life stages, and – surprisingly – that females aged nine-to-11 are slightly more active than their male peers.

Another instructive finding is that sport clubs and venues play an important role in fostering participation. Football (soccer) and golf clubs lead the field in this respect. But it is also clear that “being active” is an expensive business: more than A$10.7 billion was spent on participation fees over the past year.

This headline information about sport and exercise participation in Australia is valuable but limited. It does not say much about sport as a social institution, its cultural role, and the barriers to participation in it.

Some of that more illuminating detail can be found in the survey’s data tables. Here we find the top motivation for participating is “physical health or fitness” for 75.6% of men and 81.4% for women. 50.3% of men participate for “fun/enjoyment”, compared with 39.2% of women.

So, the gender differences not apparent in overall participation rates begin to emerge.

Similarly, in examining the barriers to participation stage of life, social class, level of education, and occupational status are shown to be important influences. For adults the main reason (37.1%) not to be active is “not enough time/too many other commitments”. But among those aged 35-44, when work and parenting pressures are likely to be at their height, it is 56.8%.

The non-participation demography demonstrates that you are less likely to engage in sport and physical activity if you live in a remote location, are unemployed, did not complete high school, are Indigenous, speak a language other than English at home, have a disability or other restrictive physical condition, and an annual household income under $40,000.

image Sport clubs play an important role in fostering participation. shutterstock

Reinforcing social inequalities

In other words, sport is not a magical space that transcends social inequalities. In various ways it reproduces and even reinforces them.

An example of the latter is when, as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu discussed in the French context, elite sports organisations function as places where “social or cultural capital” can be exchanged and those outside the “club” are overtly or subtly excluded.

Sport in Australia long left behind the amateur ideal of playing for the fun of the game. While many people still enjoy playing sport, they are a minority of the population. The most-prized forms of sport are heavily industrialised and commercialised, and closely tied to the gambling, alcohol, fast food and branded merchandising and leisure-wear industries.

My research has revealed that while playing and watching sport is an important part of Australian culture, it fails to live up to much of its own publicity. A national survey of 1,200 people found that 61.2% of respondents never play any kind of organised sport. 55.5% had watched sport live at a venue in the last year, and 84.9% had watched it live through the media.

Gender was found to be significant. Proportionately, more men than women play at all measures of frequency, but more women (70.7%) than men (51.5%) never play organised sport. Among those who identified as working class, 63.8% never played sport, while that was only the case for 45.8% of the upper-middle class.

In a qualitative study conducted in greater western Sydney, I was frequently told how children found it difficult to join sport clubs because their families could not afford the registration fees, or were not able to transport them safely to and from training.

Several young women, especially those from Middle Eastern and Pacific Island backgrounds, encountered difficulties participating in sport because of gendered cultural expectations and responsibilities.

image High registration fees are a barrier preventing many children from participating in organised sport. shutterstock

Eradicating barriers

It is apparent from these findings, which are more sport-focused and nuanced than the AusPlay data, that there is much work to do if we are to eradicate such barriers to participation in sport.

If it is accepted that access to sport, which is massively subsidised by governments and corporations, is a right of cultural citizenship, then more systematic attention needs to be given to bolstering rights and responsibilities in the sport field.

This area of citizenship includes enabling equitable sport participation, offering reasonably priced entry and quality consumables at sport venues, and guaranteeing free-to-air TV viewing of major national sports events.

These are measures of sporting success that far exceed Australian victories in the tennis, the Olympics and the Ashes.

This is part of a short series of articles on equality in, and access to, sport. Catch up on the others here.

Authors: David Rowe, Professor of Cultural Research, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

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