Norm the slob: role model for a sporting nation

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The Independent Online

The town of Tarraleah is not an obvious place to visit while travelling across the fast changing and fascinating landscape of Tasmania. Its main points of interest are its two vast pipelines leading to a nearby hydro-electric plant. Since that was completed, not much seems to have happened to Tarraleah which now has the bored, bewildered air of a town whose best days are behind it.

The town of Tarraleah is not an obvious place to visit while travelling across the fast changing and fascinating landscape of Tasmania. Its main points of interest are its two vast pipelines leading to a nearby hydro-electric plant. Since that was completed, not much seems to have happened to Tarraleah which now has the bored, bewildered air of a town whose best days are behind it.

But it has a bar and, more importantly, a petrol pump. I put in $20 worth of fuel (the price was a ruinously expensive $1.07, or 47p, a litre) and looked around for someone to pay. The only sign of life came from the bar.

When I walked in, three guys were sitting, slumped over their beers in time-honoured fashion, their eyes fixed on a TV behind the bar on which the second test against the West Indies was being shown. I paid the barman for my petrol and asked the score. "Six for 45," he said with the easy air of someone used to winning. "McGrath got his hat-trick."

By the time you read this, McGrath and his team-mates will have won another test, their twelfth on the trot, making them the most successful international side in history. Meanwhile Australia also has a brilliant 19-year-old golf champion, the best swimmer in the world, are in the finals of the Davis Cup, have just won the rugby league world cup and only lost to England at Rugby Union through dodgy refereeing (or at least, that was how it was reported here). Just warming up at soccer, they have already given Scotland a beating.

Australians love to think of themselves as a sporting nation. The country's selfesteem is inextricably bound up with success on pitch and court. With every new victory, the image they like to have of themselves - a nation of bronzed, healthy, successful outdoor types - receives a boost.

Unfortunately, it's a bit of a fraud. The idea of sport as a pastime hardly makes it out of the blocks here. Visiting Perth, Melbourne, Albury-Wodonga and Tasmania, I had expected to see people running, swimming, kicking and hitting balls wherever I went. Instead, the tennis courts, which are everywhere, are deserted, in spite of the perfect weather. In the parks and on the green spaces, there are no groups of teenage boys or girls playing jokey, informal team games, as there would be in Britain. The idea of amateur sport on a large scale - the equivalent of Sunday morning football leagues on Romney Marshes or Tooting Common, say - is inconceivable.

You are either good at games, in which case you are coached at school level and shipped off to the well-funded Institute of Sports, or you are watching it on TV. It seems that the better a country becomes at top-level competition, the less its people are willing to participate themselves; when winning becomes sport's highest priority, the mediocre majority soon take to the couch.

Australians admit that there is a problem. In the late 1970s, a series of government TV advertisements, starring a slob called Norm, encouraged participation and an energetic lifestyle under the catchphrase "Life. Be in it". Norm, it has recently been announced, is to be the subject of a new campaign.

There may be some way to go. Following the Olympics, the nation is more hooked on watching sport than ever. On Sunday morning TV, they are still showing highlights - that is, the Australian medals - from the Sydney games almost as if, months after the closing ceremony, they still cannot quite let those glorious sporting moments disappear into the past.

Back in the bar in Tarraleah, the three stooges can still cheer on McGee, the cyclist, as he wins bronze yet again before switching over to watch the Windies get another walloping. For them, Norm is not a warning, but a role model.

terblacker@aol.com

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