Playing On—

John Harms
John Harms is a Melbourne-based writer and commentator. His sporting memoir is called Play On.

Sport was far more visible and immediate than art where I grew up in the Queensland bush. The two were thought of separately, and they were separate. How that has changed. Both have something to tell us.

My home town had a rugby league team: the Oakey Bears. On Sundays I was one of hundreds of people to make their way through the Anzac memorial gates, the entry to the sporting precinct, which included a rugby league field, a training field, the tennis club (with its ant bed courts) and the Oakey Bowls Club. Once through the gates I would walk past the National Fitness Centre where, on Friday nights, we rollerskated to the music of Slade and Kiss and, on Tuesdays, did gymnastics and (occasionally) boxing. Further along, I’d go past the boozing blokes standing on the grass, past the canteen

(with its pies and mushy peas) and find a seat in the tiny (and rickety) wooden grandstand. I’d sit there shivering in the winter westerlies, next to ladies in tartan skirts and scarves and their weathered farmer-husbands in checked coats with sheepskin collars. Cheering warmed us up.

Oakey had great characters: some were huge, a little flabby perhaps, and lumbering; some had been chiselled from rock and were as tough as they come; some were lithe and athletic and lightning fast. This was my team. Led by five-eighth Dicky Rose, one of Oakey’s three Indigenous players at the time,

the Bears were brilliant. They could stir whatever it is inside a boy that makes him feel excited and alive, that makes him show joy without inhibition, and to be completely immersed in what is going on. At 12, I wasn’t thinking about what that was; it was a feeling. But it was a strong feeling.

We played every sport we could. In winter, rugby league for the junior club. In summer, we swam at the Oakey Memorial Swimming Pool, built to remember those who had died in the wars. Some kids were in the ‘Squad’, which meant they trained every day. We did bombs off the big board, refining our techniques to make the biggest splash possible.

The Oakey Golf Club was out of town, past the racetrack, and a few kilometres further west along the railway line. The (very flat) golf course, set amongst the wheat fields, was maintained by the members who, in the belief that there was enough water, converted the sand scrapes to grass greens.

It was a long way from St Andrews, yet there was something in the game of golf that motivated the volunteers to put in the hours maintaining the greens and fairways (while praying for rain).

And then there was Joe Jurd’s. Joe was the barber, and out the back of his salon he had a full-size billiard table where, after school, we tried our hand at snooker. We watched Pot Black on ABC TV and tried to emulate Eddie Charlton – only we were wearing stubbies and thongs rather than bowties and waistcoats. I had no idea of snooker’s Englishness, and little understanding that Australia was the sporting nation it had become because it had been a British colony. We played our cricket in Toowoomba, half an hour’s drive away. We did athletics on the school oval.

We knew Aboriginal families – some of the men were celebrated rugby league players – but almost no one outside the Aboriginal community had any awareness or knowledge of Indigenous sports and games. That didn’t come for years.

So I grew up with sport – backyard games, school sport and club sport – as did so many other kids in Oakey. It was part
of me. It was part of us. I was sports mad. I consumed every sports program on TV, I devoured the sports section of the newspaper, and I bought football and golf magazines with money I’d saved up from lawn mowing. I couldn’t get enough of it. I had my heroes. I had my dreams. It was an experience played out across Australia – in the country and the cities.

Art was far less prominent in our Oakey lives. There must have been an art gallery in the shire offices then – there was certainly a library – and no doubt there were artists in the area, but we weren’t familiar with them.

The most prominent piece of art in the town was in the main street – not far from the swimming pool. It was a life- size bronze statue of Oakey’s greatest sporting hero, the racehorse Bernborough, by sculptor Fred Gardiner. Ridden by Athol Mulley, Bernborough was a horse with a withering finishing burst. He won 15 races in succession and became a legend of the turf. Kids knew little of his fame. They just wanted to sneak a ride on him without getting caught, until they eventually learnt what the champion horse meant to the town.

‘The most prominent piece of art in the town was in the main street – not far from the swimming pool. It was a life-size bronze statue of Oakey’s greatest sporting hero, the racehorse Bernborough, by sculptor Fred Gardiner.’

I went off to university in Brisbane and met people from all over Queensland and Australia. Many loved sport. I continued to play club sport, to attend Test matches and footy matches at the Gabba and State of Origin battles at Lang Park, to watch the great sports events on TV and to read about sport. I studied history, and eventually sports history. Wonderful writing on sport ignited my interest in a key question: why does sport have such a place in so many people’s lives?

The simple answer is that sport is meaningful. It appeals broadly and deeply. Every week, every season, every year, there are stories – good and bad – that shine a light on an aspect of human existence.

I look back at the first national AFL Women’s competition in early 2017. Women’s Australian Rules football has
been around for a century, but the establishment of
the AFLW made it visible and brought women’s football and women’s sport into the public conversation. It gave tremendous encouragement to girls who wanted to be involved at junior level. It was a moment of triumph for all those who had devoted their energies to keeping women’s footy going. And, it was about footy itself. It was about striving for the premiership cup, the physical contest, the athleticism, the courage required to perform skills under the threat of legitimised physical violence, the elevation of team over individual, the searching for self-belief, the finding of the will to continue in the face of sheer exhaustion … and much more.

I look at Johnathan Thurston in the 2015 NRL Grand Final. He had been so successful for Queensland in State of Origin games over the years but he so wanted a premiership victory for the Cowboys. The whole of North Queensland was behind him. With seconds to go it seemed he and his Cowboys would be denied again. What had he done to deserve the wrath of the gods? North Queensland scored a try and JT had the chance to win the match with a kick from the touchline.

It was on target, curling back. But it hit the post and missed. The gods were toying with him. Then they released him: he kicked the winning field goal in extra time. I was in tears in my study 1000 kilometres away.

Sometimes the meanings in sport are captured so concisely, so beautifully. At the passing of Betty Cuthbert, the golden girl of Australian athletics in the 1950s and ’60s, I was reminded of a simple statement she once made: ‘I felt free when I ran’.

There is something in the sporting greats that we relate to.
In some ways, it is enough just to watch their performances. They contain a certain truth. The stars of sport provide us with memorable moments, even moments of transcendence. But I yearn for understanding. I want to know why a moment has such appeal. So I continue to return to an old question: what did the Oakey players stir in a little boy in a wooden grandstand at the end of the earth?

Perhaps therein lies the place of the artist and the thinker – whether a painter, sculptor, writer, composer or musician. Looking at the works of art presented across the five Basil Sellers Art Prizes, I feel art offers so much. In its breadth of subject matter, I am challenged. In its representation of ideas, concepts, moments, I am challenged. What is it inviting me to feel? To think? To do?

Artists, like sportspeople, present us with moments of insight. It’s no surprise they have found each other.

‘Artists, like sportspeople, present us with moments of insight. It’s no surprise they have found each other.’