Victoria Park, A Timeless Place

Contesting the Sportscape

@wludbey: few metres beyond 50 metre line 30 yards inwards start of the wing Pies members stand side (railway line end) Facing crowd after siren[1]

Sport in the City*

Sport makes it home in the city. Sport articulates the ideals of the modernist drive. The success of the individual, a level playing field, equal opportunity for all who complete – regardless of identity and background. Modernist sports seeks to homogenise the landscape (Bale 1994). These ideals of sport and modernism, which grew together and are mutually constitutive, have become increasingly unsustainable. Not only is modernism unevenly spread, it is also adopted and adapted in various ways. Sports take on new forms and meanings as they’re played by peoples who don’t have the same set of values as those who conceived the rules of such and such sport. This too is the case with Australian rules football (Gorman et al 2015; Butcher & Judd 2016).

Butcher and Judd, in their analysis of footy as played in Papunya, contrasts significantly with the game as run by the Australian Football League, and instead, more closely reflects Wills’ original imagining of the game (2016). They write, “the Aboriginal football ethic that has emerged as a dynamic force in central Australia is the direct outcome of kin relationships underpinned by Aboriginal concepts of intimacy and regulated by a complex set of social rules and prohibitions that stretch an invisible web across vast geographical areas of the Australian continent” (2016). Keywords are flexibility, contingency, and social relationships. This is a sportscape with a looser border; a sportscape in which the ‘outside’ transgresses more easily the supposed sanctity of the white boundary line.

Retro and New

The sportscape, however, facilitates numerous contentions. The sportscape is not bound to be always headed towards uniformity. Daniel Rosensweig, in his book, Retro Ball Parks (2005), tells the story of how the Baltimore Orioles through their stadium Camden Yards, inadvertently started the trend of newly-build old-style baseball stadia. These stadia, which invoked the past, and incorporated elements that had been the target of the bureaucratic homogenisers of the Major Baseball League, were now being built back into the designs of the new stadia. This came after the MBL of the 80s and 90s had been characterised, in presence, by fake-grass and cookie-cutter stadia. The idiosyncrasies of places such as Fenway Park and Wrigley Field rather than just being outdated icons of the past, became new reference points for baseball franchises asserting their point of difference.

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Australian rules football, in a sense, is undergoing a similar change in mood: albeit, without the actual changes in architecture. The traditional ‘big four’ clubs of Collingwood, Carlton, Richmond and Essendon, make use of their ‘traditional’ home grounds for games in the Australian Football League Women’s and the Victorian Football League. Fans watch games caught within contrasting feelings: are they re-living the sensations of the VFL (d.1999), or are they a part of nascent trend in shifting footy consumption. For fans, going to the AFLW or VFL games at suburban grounds it is both novel and nostalgic. This is felt most keenly at Victoria Park: where not only half the stands remain intact, but the other half of the ‘ground’ has been turned into a BBQ area, complemented by the steel girders for the now-demolished R.T. Rush[2] grandstand. The past has troublesome memories; and moving clubs to shiny, new, streamlined stadia, makes it easier to forget what we don’t want to remember.

The game’s origins are contentious. ‘Australian rules’, some argue, is the outcome of the interaction between Thomas Wentworth Wills and the First Nations peoples of western Victoria. Wills, a brilliant sportsman and troubled alcoholic, learned their language and saw their games (de Moore 2008). But, when the game was codified into a sport there was nothing about the game having its origins in Marn Grook. There were no references to it. And for some, as there is no official record, it isn’t real. On the other side, though, some argue that the Marn Grook factor is part of the reason for the strong cultural identification amongst First Nations peoples with the game. Adam Goodes believes there is a link.And then, there is also a apple-cart-upsetting contrarian named Athas Zafiris, who neither takes side with an anglo-centric reading of the game, nor that of the pro-Marn-Grookists, such as Martin Flanagan (1998). Athas, of Shoot Farken, says, that what is important about the Aboriginality of Australian rules is not the contentious Marn Grook connection, but that Indigenous Australians were able to quickly learn the game, and adapt to their own culture. Early victories of Aboriginal teams over Settler teams were important acts of resistance (Zafiris, 2016).

Contesting the Sportscape

I walked with Wayne Elliott around Victoria Park: through the empty and as-good-as-silent grandstands. In Elliott’s painting of Victoria Park, I see the competing trajectories of this place and its people gently interweaving. There were dog walkers with their dogs playing around on the wings where the beloved Collingwood players once did their thing. Victoria Park has shifted from being the most tribal of VFL venues (Klugman and Osmond 2013) to a place of recreation, leisure and being the home of the Collingwood Knights amateur footy club: a club that wears an Indigenous-themed black and white striped jumper.

In Elliott’s painting I see both traces of VFL-era Collingwood Magpies and the ground’s present day use. I see a figure dressed in St.Kilda colours: who may or may not be Nicky Winmar. I think of Winmar himself. A man, who for a brief moment, made a gesture that can’t be forgotten. A gesture that imbues others with pride and courage. I also think of the everyday-Winmar: not just the heroic and statuesque figure of Ludbey’s photograph. Winmar’s football skills facilitated his ability to speak to a massive audience and to change the course of political, social, cultural debates and knowledge. Here in Elliott’s painting, the would-be-Winmar becomes anonymous; a member of the public, playing his footy, in his own way; without keeping score or following rules. The memory of Winmar’s gesture infiltrates the sportscape of Vic Park – which transgresses across Wurundjeri Land.

Victoria Park Sketch 2

[1] I sent a tweet to Wayne Ludbey, asking him where Nicky Winmar was standing at the moment he made his famous gesture. Ludbey is the photographer whose photo of Winmar became the most recogniseable single image of this era-defining moment. Ludbey actively lobbied his newspaper, the Herald-Sun, to acknowledge that Winmar’s gesture was a rebuttal to the racist taunts he had received from the parochial Collingwood crowd. The quote here is Ludbey’s full reply.

[2] Apparently the person who coined the club’s motto, ‘Floreat Pica’.

*This is my second piece on Wayne Elliott’s work. My other is Into the Sportscape. We have since commenced working on a series of paintings and essays in which we explore the intersection of place, sport and landscape.

Bibliography

Bale, J. 1994. Landscapes of Modern Sport. Leceister: Leceister University Press.

Butcher, T. and B.Judd. 2016. “The Aboriginal football ethic: where the rules get flexible”. The Conversation. 3 August, 2016.

Flanagan, M. 1998. The Call. St.Leonards: Allen and Unwin.

Gorman, S. and B.Judd, K.Reeves, G.Osmond, M.Klugman, G.McCarthy. 2015. “Aboriginal Rules: The Black History of Australian Rules”. International Journal of the History of Sport, Oct 2015. Vol. 32 Issue 16, pp.1947-1962.

Klugman, M. and G. Osmond. 2013. Black and Proud: The story of an iconic AFL photo. Sydney: Newsouth Publishing.

de Moore, G. 2008. Tom Wills: his spectacular rise and tragic fall. Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin.

Rosensweig, D. 2005. Retro Ballparks: Instant history, baseball and the new American city. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Zafiris, A. 2016. “Cummeragunja: The Aboriginal football team that opened the eyes of White Australia”. Shoot Farken. 26th May, 2016.

 



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