It's a bit of a cliché to say a country is sports mad. But in Australia, the cliché fits. Australia's not just sport mad, it measures its place in the world on the sports field.
"Sport? I suppose it's our great distraction, but it's also the great sort of bonding of Australian society, and people and culture," said Sean Gorman, an academic from Curtain University in Perth.
I went to an Australian Rules Football Game in Melbourne with Gorman to try to find out why Australians love sport so much. "It's a hard question to answer, but… it goes straight to our identity and the way we do things here in Australia."
And the way they do things, Gorman insisted, is more intense than any silly old American baseball game or Brazilian soccer match. "Without a shadow of a doubt. When you talk to people from overseas, they are gobsmacked at just how popular this game actually is," said Gorman.
I was myself gobsmacked at how passionate Gorman and others were in making their argument. To prove his point, Gorman even went through the personal humiliation of trying to sing his team's fight song. He supports the lowly Fremantle Dockers.
I also got to hear the fans of the Melbourne Demons sing their fight song, a rousing ballad sung to the tune of George M. Cohan's patriotic American song "You're a Grand Old Flag." The Demons' lyrics: "It's the emblem of the team we love." (By the way, when I told people at the game their fight song was an American knockoff, they looked at me in disbelief.)
There are many theories as to why Australians cherish sport so much. First there's the climate and space theory.
"It's much easier to engage in sport in Australia because it has good weather and it has lots of room," said David Rowe, a professor of cultural research at the University of Western Sydney.
Makes sense. Then there's the theory that sporting culture in Australia is different because it's not dominated by one or two main sports.
"You've been to Britain I'm sure, you know, (they're) football mad, Italy is football mad, South America is football mad. But, not sport mad," said Rowe. "What distinguishes Australia is a broader commitment to sport."
I'd buy that. Australians seem to like just about anything with a winner and a loser.
Then, there's the theory that Australians are just trying to get their mother's attention.
"The British take notice of us because we bash 'em up at Cricket," said John Coates, the president of the Australian Olympic Committee.
Coates did issue a correction. "Or, we used to (bash 'em up at cricket)."
And lastly, there's the chip on the shoulder theory, as explained by Clive Allcock, an Australian psychiatrist who also writes about horse racing.
"Americans have got the rightful position of being one of the big nations in the world. And our competitiveness says we'd like to be up there, but obviously, we're not so big, we haven't got such a strong business culture. We can do well in sport. Being a smaller country, we can take on the world in sport and succeed, and succeed beyond sometimes our wildest expectations."
In the unofficial medal table, Australia finished in 4th place at the Summer Olympics of 2000 and 2004. In those Games, the Aussies took home about half the medals that the Americans did. Not too shabby for a country with only 1/14th the population. Australia's incredible success was no accident.
"Between 1980 and 2000, we imported 200 coaches, largely from Eastern Europe and Asia, in diving, in gymnastics, in rowing, in canoeing, in archery," explained John Coates, the AOC president.
In just eight years, Australia more than doubled its medal haul. But then, the wheels fell off the bus. At the Beijing Summer Games in 2008, Australia dropped to sixth place. Newspapers depicted a country gripped by an identity crisis.
"The Brits beat us," said Coates.
I offered: "It wasn't like it was a disaster."
He countered: "It was."
Coates said that won't happen in London next year. He said finishing outside of the top five is "not good enough."
Coates told me the old Olympic ideal of just participating is "not the Australian ethos. We are very much about winning."
At What Cost?
This determination to win at all costs is starting to be questioned among ordinary Australians. Taxpayers are paying an awful lot of money to train their athletes to win all those medals.
"Various people have tried to come up with calculations of the cost per gold medal," said David Rowe at the University of Western Sydney. "One (calculation) I saw was $48 million per Australian, per medal, something of that nature."
That's at the very high end of spending, per capita, compared with other countries. Rowe didn't think that's an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars. He said that money could be better spent on community ball fields and local resources. That was also the conclusion of a well-publicized national report in Australia, referred to as "The Crawford Report."
I met with Australian water polo Olympians Rebecca Rippon and Alicia McCormack and asked them if money should be spent on community sport or elite athletes? The two women said both are necessary.
"If you don't put (money) into grass roots, then you're not going to support those athletes enough as a grassroots athlete to come up and be an elite athlete in a high-performance sport," said McCormack.
Rippon added, "If you want to people to aspire to do things, and there's nothing for them at the end, then it's really hard for them to continue and wonder why they're putting in the work."
Regardless, both women don't buy the idea that they're coddled elite athletes. The women get some money to train, but funding "really doesn't even add up to your rent," said McCormack.
And being an Olympic athlete requires long, long, long hours of training, with little glory and glamour for most Olympians.
"The only people that really know that you're an Olympian are either people that you've grown up with, or if you come from a small community, people from there may know, or people within the water polo community. It's not like I'd be walking down the street, and someone would say, 'Ahh, there's an Olympian,'" said McCormack.
But once the Olympics are on TV, McCormack and Rippon know they become role models. And the two women said that matters.
But investing in role models and national sporting prestige is no longer resulting in widespread public participation. People aren't getting off their couches. Australia has an alarming obesity problem among its young people.
Still, for the time being, that hasn't put a dent in funding elite sports. Last year, the Australian government boosted the budget for training top athletes by more than 20 percent.
So, Australians remain as obsessed as ever about sports: just watching them, not playing.
Australia v England: Internationl netball test Adelaide, October 2008. (Photo: paddynapper)