Asian athletes do a runner
COMPETING in a major international competition is the height of most athletes' ambitions, but for some it is but the means to an end. At the Asian Games, the number of athletes available for action is dwindling rapidly: so far at least 14 competitors have vanished from the Games village in Hiroshima and officials are concerned that a lot more may go when the Games end today. There's nothing sinister about the disappearances: the athletes are simply vanishing into Japan's vast black economy, where they can earn more for menial jobs than they can through their sports at home. Police are searching for four Sri Lankans, four Nepalese, three Bangladeshis, two Pakistanis and one Iranian, and there are rumours that a number of Yemenis may have done a bunk as well. The police don't expect to find any of the athletes, and the countries concerned will think twice about sending teams to Japan in the future. But look on the bright side: at least the closing ceremony won't take long.
Down Under world goes over the top
'THIS is the most difficult game in the world,' said David Parkin, coach of the Carlton Blues Australian Rules Football team. 'Run a half-marathon and have the Christ beaten out of you all afternoon and still be able to catch a flying oblong ball. That's a hell of a game. Of course, round-ball games are not easy to play either.'
'You're right there mate,' another Antipodean voice chipped in. 'The second half of England- Romania was like watching paint dry.'
You will have gathered that Aussie Rules people hold their sport in high regard, and are contemptuous of other pastimes. They are especially hard on those who could help their sport to grow, but disdain to do so. 'The trouble with the Australian educational system,' Parkin gently observed, 'is that all the teachers are 48-year- old women.'
The trouble with Australian Rules Football is that it is barely played outside its native land. So when talented youngsters are faced with a career choice between Aussie Rules and rugby league, rugby union or basketball, they choose the sport at which they will have a chance of representing their nation. 'One of our players, Peter Green, will be playing rugby union next season,' Parkin said. 'But that's because we gave him the arse.'
Bottoms aside, the match between Carlton and Richmond Tigers at The Oval today has a significance beyond the entertainment of London's expatriate Aussie community. If the game does not take off internationally it will ultimately die, starved of young players by other, better-known sports.
That would be a shame. Aussie Rules is to football what Mad Max is to the road movie: outrageous, over-the-top, but really rather watchable. Dean Richards, the England No 8, summed it up quite nicely once. 'Yeah, I've seen Australian Rules,' he mused. 'What rules?' There are a few, but they're hardly worth bothering to learn. The game lasts two hours, and the point is basically to get the scarlet, rugby-like ball from one end of the huge oval pitch to the other, and kick it through the goal.
Making a lot of noise is important. Even in training, the players yell at each other absolutely non- stop. 'Do you want the ball?' John Northey, the Richmond coach, demands. 'Then command it.' Strange commands, these: 'Floppy, floppy, floppy]' 'C'mon Wombat]' 'Wayne, Wayne, Wayne]' 'Burp.' It is possible that this last was not a command at all, but a residue of the previous night's hospitality. The players all seemed touchingly pleased to be on the tour, and they approached the Oval pitch with genuine awe and clicking cameras. 'It's a fantastic arena,' said Kevin MacFadyen, a Richmond coach. 'Say mate, when was the last time the England cricketers beat Australia here?'
Training consisted of fast passing manoeuvres - the ball must be punched from player to player - and kicking practice, for kickers to perfect the 'drop punt', in which the ball is thrown on to the lower end of the boot for maximum distance. On the end of these kicks, catchers practised the 'high mark'. This is the game's trade-mark move: players attain great height against aggressive defence to cling on to the ball and achieve a free kick. It combines the skills of the line-out expert in rugby with those of the running back in American football, and it's great to watch.
The game has other things in common with rugby. Training over, David Parkin called his Carlton team together for a chat. 'We've got a game on Sunday,' he said. 'So beer in moderation. Everything in moderation.' Moments later, John Northey addressed the Richmond players. 'We'll announce the team tomorrow,' he said, 'and I strongly suggest that the 22 selected stay off the piss.' It was difficult to believe: two teams of Australian sportsmen, at The Foster's Oval, in a no- tinnie situation.
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