Lecturas: Educación Física y Deportes. Revista Digital

David Kirk (Australia)
The University of Queensland

This paper examines the notion that Australians are 'naturally' fit and physically talented as a nation, and suggests through the use of historical and contemporary analyses that this notion is a myth. However, in the first section it is argued that the myth continues to exert a powerful influence over policy making in the exercise, sport and health fields. As a consequence, the role of school physical education is consistently overlooked or underplayed in policy initiatives. In the second section of the paper, the possible relationships between school physical education and wider social processes are examined through the notion of popular physical culture. In the final section, the relationships suggested by this analysis are utilized to propose a means of rethinking physical education in terms of physical literacy, embodied identity and critical engagements with physical culture.
Keywords: School Physical Education. Myth. Australian culture. Physical culture

The myth of the sporting ‘legend’
The notion that Australia has traditionally been a nation of sports participants is a myth. Like most other myths, this one is widely believed to be true, while in reality there is widespread evidence to the contrary. I stress the word ‘traditionally’, because there is in the 1990s just as widespread a belief that Australians have, in journalist Helen O’Neil’s (1996) terms, been on ‘the slide to sloth’. According to serious current affairs television shows such as Four Corners (in 1992) and Lateline (in 1996), children are becoming fatter, while their physical fitness and sport skills are deteriorating rapidly. Some, such as sports journalists Jeff Wells, have seen in this slide to sloth a metaphor for the depressed state of Australia writ large, where he claims ‘we present a pathetic picture of a nation unable to keep up with the speed of world political and economic trends’ (Wells, 1990).

While there can be no doubt that the media has, true to form, simplified and sensationalized this alleged physical deterioration, some professionals in the fields of health promotion, exercise science and physical education seem to have been only too eager to add fuel to the fire. They seem to have been motivated by the view that any publicity is good publicity. They seem to believe that once alerted to the extent of Australia’s fall from grace as a nation of sporting legends, the general public will along with Olivia Newton-John ‘get physical’, while state and federal governments will be falling over themselves to provide funding for participation in sport and physical recreation.

The truth of the matter is that Australians never have been particularly keen on participating in sport, preferring instead to be entertained by watching others exert themselves. For example, in 1968 Brian Nettleton published a paper based on a secondary analysis of surveys of the leisure pursuits of Australians, including their involvement in sport and exercise. The studies he cites date from 1945 through to 1966 and included rural and provincial settings as well as cities. Nettleton admits that these surveys were not necessarily well designed by the standards of his day, but he claims that ‘they present a weight of qualitative evidence which suggests a society in which the proportion of individuals who participate in active sport during their leisure hours is small, and that this proportion diminishes with age’ (Nettleton, 1968). The weight of evidence, covering a period from 1945 to 1966, convinced Nettleton that ‘homo-sedens Australis’ was the rule rather than the exception.

Our state and federal government departments of sport and recreation have their origins in the national fitness campaign of 1938 and 1939 which lead to the passage through federal parliament of the 1941 National Fitness Act. The Act ensured, among other things, the provision of facilities and services in support of participation in sport, despite the fact that the National Health and Medical Research Council was the official body sponsoring the national fitness campaign and that issues of health were prominent in public debate. For example, under a headline of ‘True National Fitness’ in a December 1938 issue of the Argus newspaper in Melbourne, the editor claimed that the unfit and mentally defective were out-breeding the ‘clean limbed people with sound minds in sound bodies’ and quoted with approval comments to this effect by a distinguished visiting English physician, Sir Bruce Bruce-Porter, who gloomily predicted that ‘if these tendencies persist it is inevitable that civilization has in it the principle of decay and that the human race is heading for the slope’.

If these eugenics-inspired predictions were to be believed, Australians had been slithering down the slope for quite some time. Some thirty years earlier, it was concerns over race deterioration that were leading debate and policy making in fields such as public health, medicine, politics and education. The establishment of school medical inspection in most Australian states by the early 1910s and school physical training as a compulsory feature of the national junior cadet training scheme by 1911 was secured primarily on the basis of such concerns. In 1916, one General Practitioner, fearing his practice and income were under threat from the school medical services, denounced their claim, that there were widespread physical defects among the working classes, as ‘an exaggeration and a libel on Australians’ (Kirk and Twigg, 1994).

All of the most recent surveys of participation in physical activity conducted between 1984 and 1994 show that, of people aged 14 to 24, walking, swimming, aerobics, jogging and cycling rank substantially higher than any sports except for football and cricket (Kirk et al, 1996). As people in contemporary Australia get older, walking becomes more popular, as does fishing, golf and lawn bowls, with tennis and boating holding their own across age groups, while team games and other sports pale into insignificance. These surveys tell the same story consistently and persuasively - only a tiny minority of Australians who lead an active lifestyle in adulthood play team games or any other competitive sport.

And yet, despite all of this evidence of most Australians’ aversion to sport participation, the nostalgic mourning for the bronzed Aussie of yesteryear is never far away from the pages of the daily press or, apparently, in the meetings of the policy makers in Canberra and other capital cities. In what could appear to be an effort to camouflage the gross amounts of public money being pumped into a very narrow echelon of elite sport in preparation for the Sydney Olympics, the Australian Sports Commission has trotted out the sporting legends myth yet again as it leads up a new physical activity promotion campaign called Active Australia.

In addition to a planned media blitz of the lounge rooms of so many ‘Norms’ and ‘Normas’, Active Australia is intended to involve an alliance between the (so-called) sport industry and health promotion. Significantly, teachers, schools and the Education sector generally have been offered only bit parts in this campaign to get ordinary Australians ‘playing the game’. To my mind, the role of teachers and schools has been seriously underplayed in both the ASC’s Active Australia document and in another, not unrelated, policy initiative from the NH&MRC called Acting on Australia’s Weight. I predict that this marginalisation of teachers and schools is likely to have unfortunate consequences for the plans of both organizations. But it does reveal something interesting about how school physical education is positioned currently in relation to what we might call its legitimating discourse, to be found in the new physical culture.

School physical education and the new physical culture
Even though physical training remained compulsory in schools between 1911 and 1931, there is little evidence to suggest that children in large numbers played sport (see Kirk, 1994). Physical training was loosely based on various military drilling maneuvers and exercises from the DanoSwedish system of rational gymnastics, the latter sometimes known as calisthenics. Indeed, in urban Australia up until the 1960s, only the children of the privileged classes could be counted on to have experienced sport at school, while working class children in rural Australia may have had slightly greater opportunity to play games than their city cousins. Not only were facilities lacking in the cities and towns, there were few teachers trained to teach or coach sport.

This situation began to change gradually following the end of the second world war in line with policies developed by the state councils for national fitness. By the early 1950s, ‘physical training’ in schools had been renamed ‘physical education’ and a decade later, this new sport based form of the subject was becoming well established. State Education Departments began to employ personnel to provide specialist support and teaching in the primary schools through their Physical Education Branches. While the old physical jerks routines lingered, sport - consisting mainly of the major competitive team games of cricket and football for the boys and netball and hockey for the girls - was disseminated by the flying squads of advisory teachers of physical education.

Before long, by the 1970s, this same version of physical education was finding a place for itself in the expanding secondary school system. In the 1990s, sport based physical education has become so entrenched in schools that ‘physical education’ and ‘sport’ are terms that, for many children, their teachers and their parents, mean the same thing. Many school programs currently reflect this version of physical education first crystallized just after the second world war. Unfortunately, for physical education and for many of the children who experience such programs, the world has moved on since 1946.

Some of the most rapid and dramatic changes have occurred in that field of culture devoted to ‘the physical’. Physical culture, as I am using the term here, refers to a range of social practices concerned with the maintenance, representation and regulation of the body centered on three highly codified, institutionalized forms of physical activity - sport, physical recreation and exercise. It is from these essentially non-pedagogical raw cultural materials that school physical education is constructed, and to which schools in turn contribute through the experiences of young people in physical education lessons.

On the basis of this premise, we might argue that school physical education informs and is informed by physical culture. If this is the case, then we might reasonably expect to see some degree of consistency and continuity between physical education as it is currently practiced in schools and trends and developments in physical culture. What we have instead is a fifty year old idea of physical education that may well have had some legitimacy during post second world war social reconstruction, but with the benefit of hindsight we now know is culturally obsolete. Australians simply haven’t taken to participation in sport in large numbers. And now, in the 1990s, developments have occurred at such a rapid rate as to bring this relationship between school physical education and other physical cultural practices into question.

For instance, recent turmoil over television rights surrounding various aspects of professional sport in Australia is just one example of the kinds of forces that are altering the ways in which sport is coming to be understood. The so-called fitness industry has made considerable inroads to people’s conceptions of exercise and has convinced many of the need to buy expertise, access to facilities and use of special equipment in order to maintain their health. Physical recreation, from white water rafting to bungy jumping, has in similar fashion become highly organized, regulated and commercialized.

So, the reach of physical culture into people’s everyday lives has increased as a result of these developments. The growing visibility of professional sport on free to air and pay television has prompted operators in other commercial spheres to use sport, physical activities and bodies as metaphors for a range of social values, particularly in advertising a wide range of products. We now have an extensive literature available to us that shows how social values such as being healthy and wealthy, being successful, or being feminine and masculine are linked to images of slender, toned, tanned and youthful bodies. The desire of political and other leaders to be associated with winning sports teams is perhaps not new, but that such association now seems to be considered a requirement for staying in office suggests physical culture is becoming increasingly pervasive in the construction of social values. If physical culture is being dramatically reconstructed, how close is its alignment with the practices of school physical education?

Recent debate in physical education circles since the end of the 1980s would seem to suggest that the disjunctions and contradictions between school practices and physical culture have become so severe as to constitute a crisis (Kirk, 1994). Indeed, evidence suggests that physical educators as a professional group are confused and disoriented about the contribution of their subject to the educational goals of schools and to other social goals. Little wonder. If policy developments such as Active Australia and Acting on Australia’s Weight continue to perpetuate the sporting legends myth and moreover ignore current educational developments, can teachers be blamed for being confused about their educational and social mission?

The way ahead? Rethinking physical education
I suggest that the attempts to increase the sport participation of Australians or to persuade them rather simplistically to ‘Just Do It’ betray an outmoded way of thinking about physical culture. As a basis for both policy development in sport and health promotion and as a means of thinking about the relationships between school physical education and broader cultural practices, this perspective is unlikely to achieve the goals the architects of Active Australia and Acting on Australia’s Weight envisage for these campaigns.

As an alternative, I offer three educational outcomes for school physical education programs that might more clearly articulate with the new physical culture than the practices of sport based physical education. These outcomes, physical literacy, embodied identity, and a critical engagement in physical culture, are prefigured in recent educational developments nationally through the Statement and Profile in the Health and Physical Education and in Queensland through the Trial/Pilot Senior Physical Education Syllabus and the Trial P-10 Syllabus in Health and Physical Education.

Physical literacy
The term physical literacy refers to children’s acquisition of and ability to adapt and apply a wide range of movement competencies. Physical literacy includes the complete range of fine and gross movement competencies that we all need to acquire and use in our everyday lives, such things as walking, running, jumping, throwing, rolling, kicking, swimming, and catching, many of which may be sport-related, but also manipulating, typing, climbing, lifting, dancing, tying, folding, twisting, swinging, and so on. Moreover, good posture is an essential dimension of physical literacy that has a clear relationship to health and has become a lost art that physical educators need to rediscover and learn to put to good use in all forms of movement.

It is important to note that, just as literacy does not refer merely to a collection of isolated competencies such as recognizing words, spelling or writing simple sentences, so physical literacy is not the acquisition of a repertoire of decontextualised physical acts. As with literacy, and in a similar way to the whole language approach, physical literacy involves the whole child in the dynamic development and use of these interrelated skills adapted to meet a range of everyday needs and circumstances.

Embodied identity
Embodied identity is a slightly more difficult concept to grasp than physical literacy. In a physical education context the focus is on the body and movement as they relate to the development of self-identity and self-knowledge. We all know from our everyday experience that bodies are socially constructed. This happens when we attribute certain values to the way people look, their shape and size or dress, and the way they move. This process goes on all the time and works mostly at a subconscious level. However, studies have shown that the increasing attention to bodies in the media, through sport, advertising and fashion, can lead young people, girls perhaps more than boys, into constructing unrealistic ideas about a ‘normal’ body.

Physical education has a key role to play in empowering young people with the skills and knowledge to deconstruct dangerous or misleading media and other representations of bodies and in the process assist them to learn that a range of forms of embodiment are ‘normal’ and acceptable, including ways of being masculine and feminine. There are major implications in this notion of embodied identity for health and well-being, particularly in terms of leading a safe, balanced and healthy life.

Critical engagement in physical culture
Within the context of commodified physical culture, some sports in the 1980s and 1990s have become big business. Many have been transformed through their relationship with television. Teams have become commodities, products to be bought and sold, moved from state to state or city to city, and marketed to maximum profit for owners or shareholders. Physical recreation and exercise have been sucked into the commodity culture, and we nowadays comfortably talk of the leisure and fitness industries.

However much I might want to criticize some of these changes, I accept that they are now a fact of life. But, I suggest that school physical education has a major responsibility to assist young people to be knowledgeable purchasers of the products of physical culture, whether this is buying the latest home fitness gadget, taking out a membership of an exercise club or sport club, or subscribing to Foxtel. They need, in short, to become critical consumers of commodified physical culture and to be aware of how their participation in this culture can impact on their lives, and the lives of others, all the way through to the level of self-identity.

In conclusion, I am proposing that the myth of the sporting legend continues to exert a powerful influence on policy makers and researchers in the fields of sport and health. However, the idea that Australians have traditionally been sport participants and have only recently degenerated into lounge lizards is not supported by the available historical or contemporary evidence. The Active Australia and Acting on Australia’s Weight policy initiatives marginalise the contribution sport based physical education might make to their campaigns. This is ironic, since both sport based physical education and these policy initiatives subscribe, each in their own way, to the sporting legends myth.

So perhaps this marginalisation of teachers and schools is just as well. There seems to be little sense in recruiting a culturally obsolete form of physical education to help promote physical activity within the new physical culture. But the sport and health policy makers don’t seem to be aware that they themselves have swallowed the sporting legends myth. Nor do they seem to be aware of the recent educational developments in health and physical education that have begun to articulate a new relationship for school physical education and physical culture, in which school programs seek to develop physically literate, emotionally healthy and critically engaged young people. Within this context, sport can remain one medium for physical education, and participation in sport one outcome for young people and adults, but it cannot remain the sole medium and outcome. And, I would suggest, policy makers, researchers and health promoters can no longer ignore their own seduction by the myth of the sporting legend.


* A version of this paper was presented to the Everyday Wonders: Popular Culture Past and Present International Conference, Carlton Crest Hotel Brisbane, 9-13 June 1997.

Lecturas: Educación Física y Deportes
Revista Digital

Año 3. Nº 11. Buenos Aires, Octubre 1998.