On a beautiful Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago I sat on the rocks at Noosa Heads watching surfers sharing a lovely metre and a half wave off the point.
The talent on display was impressive and all ages were represented. One young bloke, who couldn’t have been more than 12, was doing things that much older surfers in previous eras wouldn’t have contemplated. A young girl about the same age was matching him move for move.
Watching this my mind wandered back to when, as a small boy, I saw Bernard “Midget” Farrelly win the Word Championship at Manly in 1964. He was a hero of mine and I retain fond memories of buying one of his skateboards and the hours of joy (and many spills) that came with it.
Just as a sideline, isn’t it interesting how size becomes distorted with time? My brain recalls some of the hills I conquered on that blue-wheeled missile (and some I didn’t) as huge things — almost Everest-like. To visit childhood haunts an an adult can reveal a totally different reality. Or at least a smaller one.
The young girl weaving her magic at Noosa reminded me that on the Sunday afternoon of Midget’s victory, the female title was won by Australia’s Phyllis O’Donnell. There weren’t too many female riders around at that time and no doubt Phyllis and other pioneers would be thrilled at the changing nature of the sport. The little girl at Noosa might never hear the name but the joy she so brilliantly displays is itself a quiet nod to those who went before.
Female champions are nothing new these days with the likes of Layne Beachley, Pam Burridge and Stephanie Gilmore household names and that’s as it should be. But it wasn’t always. Indeed, in 1940, a study was done of 314 women in Australia and N.Z and only 183 participated in any sport. Just two had tried surfing. You only need to watch Puberty Blues again to remember what the role of females was considered to be not too long ago and to celebrate the change that has given women choices many could not have imagined. And not just in surfing.
Women are dominating in sports that not long ago they didn’t even play at a serious level and have become role models to girls and boys alike. In golf, Lydia Ko is now the number one player in the world – and is just 17! She possesses what is quite likely the most beautiful swing of anyone who has ever picked up a club.
The journey for women more widely might have a way to travel but the gains have been profound.
Thoughts of changing times and attitudes came to mind as I followed the debate after Johnathan Thurston was hit in several late tackles against Newcastle. Most — including Craig Bellamy and Paul Green — thought the NRL had been soft on the offenders and I shared that view. In fact, I was surprised to see Wayne Bennett calling those who were strongly critical of the attacks on JT “drama queens.”
Craig Bellamy? I don’t think so. Bellamy has a duty of care to protect The Storm’s Cooper Cronk but he understands that responsibility logically extends to protecting the best in other teams as well.
For someone who has done more than most to promote positive change to the game Wayne’s argument sounded like a retreat into times happily gone. He suggested that playmakers have always been targets – and this is true. In years past the very best would often be hit late and were often hurt in the process. Like stiff arm tackles and elbows to the jaw, such tactics were seen for they were: a cowardly blight on the game.
Wayne added that lesser players have always sought to cut down the more gifted. That’s OK if it’s done legally but Thurston was hit late and that’s wrong and indefensible.
All kinds of things were once deemed appropriate. Until 1979 we slaughtered whales in numbers that make the Japanese look like amateurs. Slavery and bullfighting were accepted,too, as was the “place of women”. Society moves relentlessly on as do the games we play. Usually for the better.
In 1940 (or 1970) the idea of female athletes sharing the spotlight in surfing and so many other areas was just a dream.
Now, it’s a magnificent reality.