the 2003 Rugby World Cup, many commentators were surprised by the level
of support Australians reserved for the underdog teams. For example, despite not winning a
single game, crowd noise in support for the Japanese team was equal to
that ever heard for the Wallabies. In their Townsville base, locals dressed up
in Geisha costumes, kids got the Japanese players to push them around in shopping
trollies and one local even dressed up as Santa Claus to show his support for
the red and white. Similarly, when Georgia played South Africa and
Samoa played England, the vast majority supported the minnows even
though they had little hope of winning.
is nothing unique to Australia about supporting the underdog. After all, the plot
of virtually every American movie is that of an underdog doing battle with anything
from an evil empire to a super human boxer that can't be beaten. However unlike
Hollywood movies, the Australian support for the underdog is not conditional on
the underdog emerging triumphant in the end. To the contrary, if the loser has
tried their utmost and never surrendered, Australians still consider them to be
It should be pointed out; however, that while Australians often support underdogs, they rarely claim to be underdogs. As stater by Robert Tremoboland:
also takes some time to realise that while you must always claim to take the side
of the Underdog, you should never admit to being one. Do not be tempted to tell
your audience, in the middle of a story:
was terrible - there we were fighting outside the pub, with a big crowd around
us, and I was the Underdog.'"
Av'a go ya
Support for the underdog and
maintenance of that support after failure has a long history in Australia. In
1854, 120 miners built a stockade, raised the Flag of Stars. Against the might of the English empire, it was an act
of defiance that had little hope of success. Sure enough, a few days later a military
force of 300 men attacked the stockade and tore down the flag. Yet despite being
a failure, the flag is still used today as a symbol of republicanism and solidarity
In 1880, Ned Kelly
led his fabled last stand in which he tried to take on the empire. Inside
Inn, he and his gang exchanged fire with the police outside. After some
hours, he burst through the police cauldron under a hail of bullets. Realising
that his mates had not made it out as well, he then turned back into the line
of fire, advancing until his legs were shot-out from beneath him.
For those watching, whether he was a good man or bad didn't matter. What mattered
was that he was one man who had the courage to face many. He was man who suffered
28 separate bullet wounds but recovered to face a trial that he had no hope of
winning. Yet despite everything going against him, and the lack of hope in the
future, Ned never lost his spirit. His courage inspired the saying "as
game as Kelly" and in death, he has become one of the very few Australian
icons that isn't a sports hero.
World War I, the British landed the Australian Diggers not on an open plain but
on the scrub-covered hills of Gallipoli. It was a stupid decision which
gave the Diggers little hope for a victory. Even so, they persevered until nine
months later the campaign was abandoned without the objectives being met. But
despite being a failure, Gallipoli is the most celebrated battle in Australian
Aside from being supportive of
failure, another curious cultural trait is the Australian willingness to support
people from outside their social class, race or nationality. In 1961, the touring
West Indian cricket team performed well above expectations. Although they
lost the series, 90,000 Australians lined the streets of Melbourne for a ticker
tape parade biding the team farewell.
the 2000 Olympic games, the Sydney public watched Eric the Eel, an African
swimmer who was barely able to swim 50 meters. Even though most people in the
stands were better swimmers than he was, they cheered his every stroke as if he
was on his way to a gold medal.
more curious trait is the tendency for Australians who are attacking the underdog,
to admire them when they stand up for themselves. For example, the all conquering
Australian cricket team is noted for sledging and destroying the opposition. However
when players such as Sachin Tendulker and Brian Lara have taken
the best the Australians could throw at them and punished or abused Australians
in return, they have won great admiration.
the Bodyline series of the 1930s, Harold
Larwood put Australian players in hospital with his short-pitched bowling.
English authorities later pressured Larwood to apologise to Australians for the
way he bowled. When he refused, he was banned from playing for England ever again.
He subsequently immigrated to Australia and rather than find hostility, he was
surprised that Australians greeted him with open arms.
cultural trait is replicated in some of the tougher Australian pubs where an individual
may be singled out for abuse over their race, class or type of clothing they are
wearing. If that individual not only stands up for themselves but returns the
abuse with interest, they gain respect of the antagonist. They may even score
themselves a free beer from the very person who was just attacking them.
finds it difficult to explain the Australian behaviour. Most social theories propose
that people support winners from their own social group in order to share in the
positive esteem of the winner's glory. By the same token, losers are demeaned
or pushed into another social group as people try to distance them from failure.
Such a pattern was noted by Albert Einstein who once said:
my theory is proven correct, the French will say I am a citizen of the world and
the Germans will say I am a German. If I am wrong, the French will say I am a
German and the Germans will say I am a Jew."
Australians don't conform to such a pattern because they don't need to be victorious
in order feel like a worthy person. When Australians cheered for the Japanese
Rugby team as it fell to each of its losses, seeing other human beings having
the courage to take on adversity, was the only emotional gratification they needed.
Thus if Einstein were to have included Australians in his quote, he may have said
" If my theory is proved correct, the Australians will say I'm a good bloke
because I upset the status quo of the establishment. If it is incorrect, they
will say I'm a good bloke because I tried to upset the status quo of the
is not clear why Australians define success by the attitude rather than
the ability or the outcome. Perhaps it is a legacy of Convicts who
had no hope of winning, but developed an attitude that they hadn't lost until
they surrendered. As one commentator noted:
convict flagellator at this time felt a gratification in inflicting and witnessing
human misery. There were many prisoners who would bear any punishment rather than
complain; I am certain that they would have died at the triangle rather than utter
The Convicts that looked
on admired the never-give-in attitude in a battle that could not be won. As one
exhibit an incredible power of enduring all these inflictions, which however,
killed or greatly debilitated many of them. "
commentator used this Convict history to explain support for Larwood:
Aussies in the 1950s when Larwood joined their nation were descended from convicts
- often men sentenced for political offences rather than crimes - or the soldiers
and warders sent out to run the prison system and they respected any man who stood
up to the master class. "
have speculated that support for the underdog comes from the harsh Australian
environment that has consistently punished Australians with droughts and bushfires.
With little hope of triumphing over nature, farmers instead redefined their goal
as trying their best and never surrendering. Again, they can not be defeated unless
they choose to give up:
Aussie battler and his wife thrust doggedly onwards: starting again, failing again,
implacably thrusting towards success. For success, even if it is only the success
of knowing that one has tried to the utmost and never surrendered, is the target
of every battler "- Michael
Page & Robert Inapen
Activity1 - Benefit or liability?
Assessing the worth of the celebration of the underdog
Read the following and take a critical stand
The Australia support for the underdog is a double edged sword. On the positive side, it encourages the underdogs to believe in themselves and have a go. In any society, the majority of people will be underdogs so in a sense, the celebration of the underdog is very good for community motivation. This is particularly beneficial in sport, where self belief has resulted in Australians being argubly the best individual and team sport nation on earth. Australians don’t really care if they win, but they will always try to win and always believe they have a chance. This hunger for victory is good for competition and eventually leads to the cream rising to the surface.
On the negative side, the support for the underdog is disastrous in the cultural industries when support for an underdog leads to an underdog being promoted over someone who has more merit. Unlike sport, the subjective nature of culture often prevents the truly gifted rising to the surface. Much like the Chinese government placing uneducated people in official positions during the cultural revolution, the Australian support for the underdog has resulted in underdogs being given exposure and opportunities when really they have not had the talent or character to warrant the exposure and opportunities. To put things into perspective, if criteria other than speed were used to select Australia’s swimming team, lots of underdogs might make the team and the likes of Ian Thorpe and Liesel Jones might not have. Although some underdogs would gain an opportunity they would not have otherwise got, the inevitable failure of the swimming team would decrease the appeal of the sport. Opportunities for thousands of swimming underdogs at various levels across Australia would then be reduced.
One example of this was the 2004 Australian Idol singing competition where Casey Donovan won largely because she was seen as an underdog. Her subsequent singing career failed, she was dumped by the record label and the industry as a whole suffered an opportunity cost. Although her underdog story was good for gaining votes, her complete package was never going to resonate with the market. People voted for her because they wanted her to win, not because they wanted to buy her songs. A similar problem was seen in the Australian movie industry during the late 90s and early naughties. Underdogs had perhaps been put in charge of funding bodies, made critics and given opportunities to make movies. One stinking movie after another was made, yet instead of criticising the movies, the underdogs in charge cheered them on like the crowd cheered Eric the Eel during the Sydney Olympics. Although individual underdogs had benefitted from gaining an opportunity to make a movie and receiving praise instead of the warranted criticism, the thousands of other underdogs that wanted to act in a movie were denied opportunities because one stinker after another turned the public off going to movies, which in turn resulted in the industry failing. If success stories had been promoted instead, then Australia would have had superior cultural industries that would have in turn benefitted everyone within them. Ultimately, when it comes to culture, it is far better for the community to promote an elitist wanker that makes the industry successful, instead of a good-natured underdog liked by all, but has no real talent. In such circumstances, it is better to give more nutrients to the tall-poppies (Paul Hogan, Peter Weir) than the nobodies that want to be somebodies. In a final example, all of Australia's government-funded galleries have rejected Pro Hart, Australia's most commercially successful artist. Instead, they have bought underdog art, that includes such things as an artist's name in Italic letters. The actions of the galleries have alienated many Australians from the art world and so reduced the potential market for underdog artists. In a nutshell, underdogs need to be encouraged, but never promoted over someone with more ability. All underdogs suffer when that occurs.
- Do you agree with the author? Why?
- Social justice often promotes the idea that individuals from underdog ethnic groups should be favoured in recruitment over other candidates who could do a better job. What is your view?
- If you support social justice for underdog ethnic groups, would you also support it for underdog socio-eonomicgroups, such as bogans?
- Affirmative action policies are sometimes justified on the grounds that underdog groups need role models. Do you agree? Why?
- Which ethnic groups would you define as underdogs in Australia? What criteria did you use?
- Are you personally an underdog?