Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Sally Robbins overboard and the class divide

Fact: women’s rowing in Australia is a sport for Hooray Henrys. Men’s rowing has plenty of ‘em hanging around the waterside clubhouse – by definition a real estate anomaly, and therefore something that must be frequented and defended by a certain breed – but for the most part, the blazer set are prepared to just let elite male rowers, whatever their background, row.

In contrast, the class divide in women’s rowing sticks out like a boat-shoe in a gay bar. I should note at this point that I have no special knowledge of Australian rowing, or indeed of any sport whatsoever (in fact, I believe that this might be my very-first sport related post in two and a bit years of blogging). But isn’t amateurism some kind of a good thing in sport, anyway? More seriously, the blanket media coverage of the recent Sally Robbins allows me – well, I maintain it does – to “go there” without ever, ahem, dipping my oar.

The nub is this. What no one seems to have mentioned – to my great surprise – is that Sally Robbins is a preppy-looking and sounding thing, while her team-mates, at a glance, appear to have walked off the set of “Neighbours” circa 1987. The team captain has a dyed-blond poodle perm, and the team’s outspoken “villain” is called Kyeema-something – presumably a variation on the name of the NSW coastal town caravan park where she was conceived.

I don’t mean to be cruel. Sport is, as it should be, a way for strongly-motivated people with nothing else going for them (like brains or background) to make it to the top. Male and female sport is thus full of Kyeemas, as I understand things. Hooray Henrys will sometimes make it to elite level as well, but this usually won’t disrupt the team/sport from being one big happy family. Hooray Henriettas may pose more of a problem, however.

Most likely because of ingrained sexism ands class-ism on the part of Australia’s stuffed-shirt, all-male rowing elders (after about 50 y.o., “Hooray Henrys” become Henry High-Pants’s) well-bred girls are apparently discouraged from seriously pursuing rowing as a career; i.e. past their early 20s. Don’t get me wrong – rowing at school and uni is more than fine both for a female and for their Henrys. After all, it gives all those almost-coxless High-Pantsers something to linger around at the boatshed for. But as a career for their post-uni daughters, the Henrys say “no” to them rowing – and so, Hello Kyeema.

The above is mostly speculation, of course. But one does have to wonder when one looks at the break-down of pro-Sally Robbins (and especially, anti- her team-mates) and anti-Sally Robbins letters to the editor in today’s broadsheets.

The Age and the Australian both lead with the same strongly pro-Sally letter from 1960s Olympic rower, and now judge (and so, presumed Henry High-Pants) Paul Guest. Very similar sentiments are then expressed in The Age by letters from blue-ribbon Glen Iris, and yuppie inner-city Port Melbourne, with the only Age letter unequivocally bagging Sally coming from a battling Belmont, a suburb of Geelong.

In the Australian, the pro-Sally tally includes letters from swish South Yarra, Mt Eliza and Toowong. The Henry-est High-Pants letter of all comes from Kambah (Canberra) – an anomalous city where all suburbs, apart from a few streets in Forrest, are homogenous shit-holes – and indignantly reminds all us swill of the drama of the great 1961 Oxford vs Cambridge boat race. Ah, so that explains it.

Finally, the SMH contains mostly centrist letters on the issue: i.e. “it’s only a game”, or “the real culprit is surely Australian rowing’s administration”. But reassuringly, Sydney does have a reasonable quota of Henrys – a lead letter bagging Sally’s team-mates emanates from pricey Randwick, while a fellow collapse-prone female athlete writes in sympathy, from gorgeous, harbour-side Mosman. If whoops-a-daisy! Belinda Halloran is indeed a self-sustaining “professional ironman triathlete” then my congratulations, but I strongly suspect that one or more Henrys may have the same dampening involvement in her career as in that of Sally Robbins – “C’mon Bell/Sal, you don’t seriously expect to be rowing at 30, like Typhphaniii*?”

Update 26 August 2004

Ken Parish calls me dubiously coherent, and for once, I agree with him. So I’ll try to summarise my necessarily-convoluted position (“necessarily” because I’m avoiding declaring my own class-position – very unsporting, I know, but what do you expect from a grown man who throws a tennis/cricket ball, and makes a fist, like a girl?).

To paraphrase Wilde – to collapse in a race once is unfortunate, but to do it twice is both careless and exceedingly amateur. Anyone can (blamelessly) collapse in a race, but the more dedicated one is to one’s sport, the more likely one will take realistic counsel from the fact of that event the first time.

Leaving aside freak once-offs or mass-collapses (where lots go whoops-a-daisy!), an intra-race collapse (at least when one is not leading the field) rather suggests than the person has (i) given it their all (of course), and (ii) their “all” is not good enough. That is just a fact.

Hence, if your name’s Kyeema and you collapse once – the sensible thing is to cut your losses, and quit the sport soon after. This is not (mainly) to do with teammates, but simply to do with recognising that rowing (or whatever) is not going to give you the whole purpose of your life, so there’s no time to waste in finding something else before one becomes an also-ran, washed-up scrag.

OTOH, if your name’s Sally Robbins, your life is going to have plenty of options/highlights after rowing, anyway – so you might as well keep it up for as long as you can talk/push/cajole your way into the elite team (Daddy has often tried to talk you out of it, especially after your first collapse, but Daddy’s kidding himself – who does he think he could trust the boatshed keys to; Kyeema?).

* Translation: Tiffany (a suggested baby name from “Kath & Kim”)

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