Why the Lucky Country isn’t blubbing about losing
An expat Brit in Australia says his countrymen aren’t obsessing over their lack of Olympic gold because they have no ‘culture of complaint’.
Good on the Poms. We’d take our hats off to you if we could remember how. The poor old to-and-froms haven’t had a decent win since the Falklands, and while Boris is no Thatcher, and London 2012 is not Sydney 2000, it’s not a bad effort for a toff. Twenty-two gold medals, eh? Chunky ones at that; you’ll be melting them down no doubt to pay for that National Health Service. Nice to see the kiddies dancing on beds, though do yourselves a favour and give it a miss for the closing do. And what sort of scam is this ‘Team GB’ anyway? What next, Australia versus ‘Team EU’ in the Ashes? Those Slovenians could give your middle order a bit of a lift.
There is nothing like a little friendly banter, or ‘sledging’ as the Poms call it, to help divert attention from Australia’s sub-optimal position on the medal table. For Australians, London 2012 ‘has not been the best’, to use a local turn of phrase that comes as close to introspection as the Lucky Country allows. Australians happily concede the gold medal for self-flagellation to the Brits, since they do it so well. British arrivals in Australia quickly learn that there is only one acceptable reply to the question ‘how are you?’, and that is simply ‘good’. Australians do not complain, they ‘give a serve’, and only to those who deserve it like bullshit artists, wowsers and boofheads. They are of course permitted to give the government a serve, but that is not so much complaint as a civic duty in a country where voting is compulsory.
The late Donald Horne made ‘The Lucky Country’ the title of an influential book examining the state of the nation. He was right: Australia is the lucky country, not by chance but by preference, for Australians have learned to make their own luck. Looking across the world’s most beautiful harbour, in Sydney, it is instructive to imagine what it might have looked like when Captain Arthur Phillip stepped ashore on 26 January 1788, somewhere between the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. It was wilderness, and pretty rough wilderness at that; not the pristine wilderness worshiped by today’s romantic ecologists, but utter wilderness; raw nature reluctant to surrender its bounty to man.
You don’t need to watch Bush Tucker Man to understand the resourcefulness of the first Australians, who had not only managed to hunt and gather a living out of this unforgiving terrain, but also developed a rich, creative culture. Armed with the wisdom of the European Enlightenment, Captain Phillip, his troops and their convict charges learned to do the same. After the obligatory raising of the flag and the offering of baubles, ‘business now sat on every brow’, records Watkin Tench in his vivid account of the settling of Port Jackson. ‘In one place, a party cutting down the woods; a second, setting up a blacksmith’s forge; a third, dragging along a load of stones or provisions; here an officer pitching his marquee, with a detachment of troops parading on one side of him, and a cook’s fire blazing up on the other’. It was chaos for a time, desperation borne by necessity, but eventually, ‘as far as the unsettled state of matters would allow, confusion gave place to system’.
The pioneering imperative has little tolerance for the culture of complaint, or for anyone who is not prepared to pull their weight. I can think of no English equivalent of the Australian word ‘bludger’; even the term ‘skiving’, probably its closest relation, does not suggest an act that is utterly and always morally reprehensible; indeed it was a mildly heroic act of rebellion at my British comprehensive in the early 1970s. ‘Bludger’ entered the Australian vernacular in the nineteenth century to describe a man who lived off a woman’s immoral earnings, and from then on conveyed the meaning of a person who left others to do the work. It is a crime against human dignity, and worse, a crime against your mates, since if you lean on your shovel they have to dig even harder.
The fear of letting down your mates explains why, out of all Australia’s disappointing moments in this year’s Olympics, the failure of the men’s 4x100m swimming freestyle team is the most discussed. Inexplicably, world champion James Magnussen failed to live up to his nickname, The Missile, taking a tormenting 48.03 seconds to swim his leg, leaving his team members an impossible task. Like Sally Robbins, who for reasons never fully explained suddenly stopped rowing in the final of the women’s eight in 2004, and was thereafter known as Lay Down Sally, there was no excuse, since to lose your own race is your problem, but to lose it for the team is to let down the nation.
This is not to deny that Australians are hungry for individual gold, preferably medals for standing up, not sitting down in a boat, the kind that put those Kiwi bludgers ahead on the medal table for a while. We have won some of course, five at the last count, but we have won a lot more silver, and if these Games have brought anything home to Australians, it is the impossibility of minting enough silver medals to compensate for the loss of a gold. No one knows why, but we know it is true because we feel it in our guts, and it can be sickening.
Humans are hardwired to win and there are no excuses for losing, especially in an egalitarian democracy where there are no institutional barriers to success. The explanation for Australia’s extraordinary haul of silver medals in London is not to be found in bad luck, the English weather or a lack of investment in the Australian Institute of Sport. It comes down to a lack of that invaluable commodity that the Americans call grit, the English call pluck and the Australians call mongrel. Australians are enjoying these Games, particularly its unexpected moments, since their affection for the underdog defies national boundaries. Mongrel, however, is a creature native to this exceptional country, and for the time being, it’s resting in its box.
Nick Cater’s book, The Lucky Culture, will be published next year by Harper Collins.
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