I’m interrupting my series on Psionics to bring you this timely post on sports and nation-building…

As I write this, the local TV host is replaying highlights from the opening ceremony of the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Since Johnn is Canadian and I am Australian, both Commonwealth countries, we find our respective nationalities on opposing sides.

It’s a somewhat interesting event, this time around – the Australian team is hoping to beat its medal tally from the 2006 games, when Melbourne were the hosts. Last time around, we came home with 222 medals, more than double the next best Commonwealth nation, the mother country, England, who scored 110. Canada was third with 86 medals.

This year, the host city is Delhi, India, giving that nation the home team advantage; they hope to ride that advantage into second position overall. England, meanwhile, is suffering under the mixed blessing of preparing to host the next Olympics in London – so their team funding may well have been affected, and they have plenty of distractions, but they also have the benefits of increased sports funding in general over the last four or more years. At the same time, there are a number of English athletes who are hanging onto the tail end of their careers to try and make their home Olympics – so very much a bag of mixed riches. According to reports, the Canadians are entertaining hopes of overhauling them in the overall medal tally – and that might be doable, depending on who steals medals from who, India vs. Canada vs. England vs. Australia.

That’s all background to this article, as is the Distilled Cultural Essence series of articles I wrote in February 2009.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about a nation’s reputation on the sporting field, and how that derives from and reflects apon the nation’s reputation in other areas.

Limited Reference

I have to admit that I have limited sporting reference apon which to draw. I have plenty of knowledge about Australian sports and our attitude toward them; I have more limited expertise about the nations against whom we regularly compete; and I have a media-tainted perception of US sports which is not always reliable, and which can be considered biased, at best.

So I should apologise in advance to any who is offended by the opinions expressed in this post. I hope that the reader can see past any offence enough to absorb the light sprinkling of perception and wisdom (I can’t lay claim to anything more substantial) that might benefit their campaigns.

The Plan

So, what’s the plan of action? Well, to start with, I want to analyse Australian participation in various sports and competitions, examining our international reputation as we / I perceive it to be. At the same time, I’ll touch on a number of our/my perceptions of other nations in those contests, not to disparage our rivals, but to highlight and contrast the Australian performance. The ultimate goal will be to distil out a few key characteristics of the Australian reputation and performance.

Along the way, I will attempt to provide historical or social context for the origins of a particular attitude or perception. These are all my own personal theories, and the reader is warned that they might not hold water – and might be biased!

The ultimate purpose of the discussion is not to big-note my nation’s sporting achievements, but to provide an example of how a GM can take a society from one of his games and develop a series of ways to express that history and society through sporting achievement, style, and tactics – and how to work it in reverse, as well, reasoning from a competitive style and reputation to a source culture and history. That’s the goal – we’ll have to wait and see if I can get there! As with sports, you can never be quite sure what will happen until the flag falls…

Aussies in Elite Motorsport

Australia continues to be extremely well represented in most categories of Elite Motorsport. Not just as competitors, but as mechanics and engineers. And the reason for that is a blend of practical bush-mechanic “we can fix anything with some wire and a hammer” attitude and precision engineering. Virtually every team who has competed in the Formula 1 world championship over the last 20 years, or in the CART/Indycar, or Rallying championships, have had an Australian somewhere in the back rooms. That’s reputation number one: a plain-spoken, blunt, practicality.

The Origins Of This Reputation

This reputation really began with the success of Sir Jack Brabham in formula one, when he became the first (and so far the only) driver to win the championship in a car of his own construction.

The “tyranny of distance” meant that until the late 70s and even the early 80s, it was impractical to transport technology to Australia. If we couldn’t build it, or rebuild it, ourselves, we didn’t have it. Australia’s remoteness is the source of this characteristic. I am quite sure that in Roman times, the English would have had a similar reputation, when they were the outer fringe of civilization.

Elite drivers

But our drivers have a reputation for being tough competitors, as well, and at first glance, isolation can’t explain that – or can it?

The fact is that the elite series are in the US and continental Europe. It might be hard for a local to succeed in breaking through into those series, but it’s one hundred times harder for an Australian, simply because Aussie competitors don’t have the financial and material support that a local can acquire. Sponsorship Dollars (or Pounds or Euros) are harder to find; in order to succeed, they have to push harder.

It comes as something of a shock to overseas drivers the first time they make a guest appearance in our local racing series; the standard of competition is as high, if not higher, than anywhere else in the world. We’ve had BTCC champions like Jason Plato come down under and struggle – even when in one of the best cars in the field.

Never Say Die: Stephen Bradbury, Ice Skater

The story of Stephen Bradbury’s Gold Medal in the 2002 Winter Olympics illuminates another characteristic widely associated with Australian sportsmen – we never give up. It’s this characteristic that has enabled so many of us to succeed in elite motorsport despite the obstacle of distance. Bradley was coming last and out of all medal contention when the four skaters in front of him were involved in a pile-up at the very last corner. Bradbury skated past to take the win.

The Origins Of This Reputation

It is my opinion that the seeds of this particular attribute lie in the country’s origins as a Penal Colony. Unwilling immigrants, forced to forge a nation whether they wanted to or not, determination was necessary in order to survive and prosper.

It was during World War I that this expression of the British Bulldog was forged into something new, known in Australia and New Zealand as the ANZAC spirit, winning the respect of military forces throughout the allied command. This was the first time that the country began to perceive itself as a nation, rather than as a colonial offshoot of England.

Unfortunately, the combination led to something called the Cultural Cringe in which the nation developed a cultural and social inferiority complex. This manifested as the belief that as a nation we were second-class except where we had proven otherwise. Our military courage and doggedness had been proven; the next field of battle was the sporting arena. Eventually, as local born artists and businesses became internationally successful, we outgrew the cultural cringe (well, mostly), proceeding in sputters and small steps through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s; but the drive to succeed on our own terms against any odds that it engendered remains. INXS, AC/DC, The Bee Gees, Air Supply, The Little River Band, Savage Garden, Kylie Minogue, our Wine labels, and even Rupert Murdoch – they all exemplify the legacy of the Cultural Cringe. These days, we tend to see ourselves as taking the best on offer from the rest of the world and making it our own.

Lessons for RPG Nations – The Colonial Identity

Colonies almost inevitably develop some form of inferiority complex, and some means of denying or overcoming it. Australia’s response is not the only one; the US found its path to overcoming their own inferiority complex through a boisterous arrogance that is sometimes justified and sometimes makes other nations cringe. This tendency began in the War Of Independence and was worsened when the US became the keys to victory in both World Wars. Korea and Vietnam restored a little humility to both ourselves and the US, but the lessons faded from memory, something that goes a long way to explaining the current mess in Iraq. Not all Americans are from Texas, but as a nation, they seem to have that “You paid for lunch, I’ll pay for the Cadillacs” Texan exuberance and flash. Ultimately, both nations are more similar than either would like to admit, and it is this that makes us such fierce rivals and staunch allies.

The question that GMs engaging in world building must ask themselves are what events were pivotal in each nation’s perception of themselves as independent, especially the case when describing former colonies; how those events influence the nation in the campaign’s contemporary era; how the citizens of that nation see themselves, and how they perceive the rest of the known world, and how the citizens of that known world perceive them.

The Bigger They Are: The Americas Cup

In the preceding section, I talked about the friendly rivalry and competitiveness that Australia feels toward the US, and it’s something that I’ll address again in a later section.

Aussies tend to see themselves as the Underdogs, and will barrack (support) other underdogs in any contest even while respecting the abilities of the stronger opponents. This is a result of another legacy of the cultural cringe, in which we tend to perceive ourselves as underdogs, which leads us to identify with others in the same boat – though that tends to go out the window when it’s US competing against THEM.

Again, we are more similar to the US in this regard than we would probably like to admit; but this rankles us a little more because we are more often the underdogs against the US than anyone else. It’s a double standard that we shouldn’t be proud of.

At the heart of this support for the underdog are two core beliefs of Australian society: a stubborn repudiation of the cultural cringe that bellows “we’re as good as anyone else”, and the belief that anyone can beat anyone else on their day.

All of these elements came to the fore in Australia’s victory over the New York Yacht Club in the 1983 America’s Cup, when we broke a 132-year winning streak. Although there were innumerable challengers before, I think it fair to say that few of these competitors really believed that they could win; the Americans were the next-best thing to invincible.

Until Australia II proved that it could be done, that is. This opened the floodgates for other challengers, and since then the US record is exactly 50/50 against the rest of the world – which is a creditable success rate, but a fair cry from 132 years of undefeated success.

The victory sparked a night of national celebration (the contest took place late at night, Australian time), with then Prime Minister Bob Hawke moved to say on National Television, “Any boss who sacks a worker for not turning up tomorrow is a bum!” (I’ve never seen any reports of how many people took up this unofficial invitation to an extra public holiday, or of how many people actually lost their jobs as a result).

Lessons For RPG Nations – National Achievements are recognised in context

It wasn’t that Yacht racing was an especially popular sport in Australia either before or after the victory that sparked such recognition of achievement and the subsequent celebrations, and it wasn’t simply because we had beaten the Americans nor was it because Australians love to party; the public response was a combination of the “support the underdog” attitude and the scale of the record that had been broken.

In other words, this was celebrated as a nationally-significant achievement because Australian Society was “pre-programmed” to respond to such an achievement by an underdog – and because it was achieved by one of “our underdogs”. Never mind that Alan Bond (a Rupert Murdoch wannabe) spent a huge sum of money and that the design was a significant step forward in Yachting Engineering and that no-one really gave two hoots about the challenge until it came down to a sudden-death shootout, winner take all, in the final race. These pesky little factual details didn’t stand a chance of dampening the emotion-based response, because that response stemmed fundamentally from who we Australians were/are as a society.

And the same will be true for an society created for an RPG – the achievements that are taken to heart and celebrated will be those that reflect some underlying attitude or philosophy of the society, regardless of any pesky little nits that might be picked.

Deciding what those attitudes or philosophies are, then creating achievements to be publicly celebrated, is an excellent means of communicating those values to players – without spending lots of game time on a dreary social commentary.

The Great Rivalries

I could have stuck this section pretty much anywhere, but having carried the analysis of the Australian sporting rivalry with the US almost to its conclusion, this is as good a place as any to finish that discussion and move on.

The USA: The Big Brother

A lot of Australians wouldn’t agree with me, but I see so many similarities between Down Under and the USA in terms of our histories and shared experiences and resulting societal patterns that the US – at least in a sporting sense – is a lot like a big brother. They will often put us down in a sort of friendly way – anyone remember Gray Hall, Jnr. saying the US swim team would “Smash them [the Australian team] like Guitars” in the lead up to the Sydney Olympics? But when you hear or read the full comment, instead of taking it out of context the way the media – both Australian and US – did, you find that this was his hope, not his expectation; he was actually rather more respectful of the challenge posed by Ian Thorpe and was downright gracious after being defeated for the Gold Medal.

And, whenever brothers compete for “family bragging rights”, there’s frequently a small dig at the other from one of the two – and a lot of veiled respect.

Lessons for RPG Nations – similarity breeds relationships

This familial relationship illustrates another key point for GMs engaged in world creation – “similarity breeds relationships”. Each nation will tend to develop “personal” relationships with nations that are similar in history and outlook and origins; if the nation is older, the relationship will be that of an older relative or sibling, and vice-versa.

New Zealand: The Little Brother

The Kiwis are our closest neighbours, and European settlement by the English began at a similar time to Australia (the early 19th century). For obvious reasons, the two countries are very similar socially, culturally, and politically; most of the differences stemming from the influence of the native Maoris on our Pacific next-door-neighbour, in my opinion – in many ways, their society was ahead of ours for most of the 20th century, I have to admit (but we’re bigger!)

Think of us as neighbouring ranches in the Arizona West, whose owners have built the houses almost side-by-side, hundreds of miles from any other human habitation.

There has been an active sporting and cultural exchange and intense-but-friendly rivalry between Australia and New Zealand for as long as I can remember, starting with a shared experience – guess what the “NZ” in “ANZAC” stands for? This is true to such an extent that most New Zealand performers (and even sportsmen in some cases) come to Australia to make their living – and most of the time, we Aussies are happy to claim them as our own if they then go on to international success!

Again, the national relationship is very much that of a bigger brother and a very-slightly younger brother – we played together as kids, had the same problems with neighbourhood bullies, and in general shared innumerable experiences growing up. And, like brothers, while Aussies love to pay out on the Kiwis, we have a grudging respect when they do well, and are the first to help out when they’re in trouble.

Lessons for RPG Nations – proximity amplifies similarities and contrasts

The geographic proximity that we have with New Zealand means that they also share the isolation that was so crucial in forming our national character. But where we were self-reliant, and less respectful of the indigenous population, New Zealand turned to the existing inhabitants, whose culture immediately began to influence and shape their national character. So, while there are numerous similarities, there are also some sharp contrasts.

Each nation that you create in your games will share a similar relationship with any neighbours; similarities will resonate more strongly, and differences will seem bigger and more significant than they really are.

England: The Old Country

Everyone wants to do better than their parents, to establish their credentials and independence. The same is true of nations; Australia’s sporting rivalry with England has a passion and intensity that is unrivalled, and it all stems from a child’s need to earn a parent’s respect.

Of course, the difficulty in establishing an independent position relative to your parents is that you share most of your cultural values with them; there is less scope to actually be different. Many of the differences that can be achieved are superficial, the equivalent of a naval piercing or a tattoo. But where there is a genuine disagreement, it tends to be taken to extremes, even to melodrama and histrionics.

The easiest route to demonstrated capability is to best the mother country in some activity which they consider their own – and that usually means sports. The absence of any achievement damages national pride and unity, leaving former colonies politically and socially unstable.

Of course, sporting prowess or its absence is not the cause of this instability – but it is symptomatic of a nations abilities in other arenas. A country that has no unifying national force, that is politically and socially unstable, is unlikely to be able to mount an effective sporting campaign!

Lessons for RPG Nations – colonial instability

When newly established and not self-reliant, colonies will tend to see themselves as an adjunct to the mother country. With the achievement of self-reliance, colonial attitudes will change.

Most self-reliant colonial settlements are either rigidly controlled from the parent nation, or agitate for independence – whether they have the political maturity to handle it or not.

If the parent nation does not accede, pressures for a war of independence will begin to mount. If the strings of authority are loosened and a measure of self-determination permitted, the new nation will (generally) remain loyal to the mother nation, though they will increasingly go their own way in lesser matters.

These attitudes will propagate into other areas of social and political policy. Rogue nations will frequently seek to ally themselves with political enemies of the mother state and to model themselves apon those nations with whom they wish to curry favour.

There are salutary lessons for the would-be world-builder in comparing the attitudes toward England of the USA, Australia, and the various African colonies. While each nation’s circumstances will be slightly different, and those differences will also play a role, the preceding paragraphs remain a good general guide.

When creating a nation, the GM should consider carefully the location and circumstances of any colonial offshoots from that country, and how relations between those countries will have evolved by the contemporary era.

Per Capita: Relative Populations

An ongoing source of national pride to Australians is that per capita we outperform just about every sporting nation on the planet – at least in summer games! We don’t have anything close to the same level of competitiveness when it comes to skiing and other winter sports.

I often wonder whether or not this is a consequence of the climate (hot and dry), which in turn leads to investment in those sporting endeavours to which the geography is naturally suited.

Consider the record of Australian success in swimming, surfing, and cricket, and the theory seems quite viable. We would probably also be successful at Soccer (“Football” in the mother country) if we had not developed our own games based around Rugby, the popularity of which absorbs most of the available funding and support.

Lessons For RPG Nations – Each nation is #1 in their own minds

Every nation will find some way of looking at their achievements that elevates them to a position of superiority, however limited. And they will cling to it as a validation of their own national priorities, which means that future resources will be dedicated to improving and reinforcing it, further cementing it as part of the unique cultural identity of that nation.

Canada has tall mountains and lots of snow – they are the Australia of Winter Sports. New Zealand has similar advantages, and can also lay claim to that characterisation. South Africa loves to beat Australia at cricket, because (excluding the native African population), they were slightly smaller than us in size, and spent comparatively little on the sport. Until the 1980s-90s era of Australian domination of the game, their win-loss record was about 50/50 – they could lay justified claim to punching above their weight.

In the 1970s, when they were the dominant power in world cricket, the West Indies (with a population of about 4 million) had less than a tenth that of Australia – they were a small group of nations which had collectively risen to world domination in this very specific sphere of activity.

Do It Right

Another Australian attitude is, “if you’re going to do something, do it right”. When, as a nation, we set ourselves a task, we go into it “the whole hog” (i.e. all the way, boots and all). The Australian track record when it comes to big events is pretty enviable.

The Formula One Grand Prix

Australia became a regular host of a round of the Formula One Grand Prix Championship in 1985 on a temporary circuit in the heart of the city of Adelaide. In terms of organisation and facilities, it immediately astonished the participating teams, setting a standard that few if any of the permanent European racing circuits could match. Shamed, the overseas circuits began to upgrade their facilities (at the insistence of the Championship’s management) – but Australia kept lifting their game as well, determined to make each year better than the last.

In more recent years, the excellence of the Australian volunteer track stewards has resulted in the nation being asked to train track officials from other countries hosting Grands Prix throughout the Middle East and Asia.

The Gold Coast Indycars

A similar outcome occurred when the tourist area south of Brisbane began to host a round of the American Indycars championship. So successful was this event that it even outlasted (by a year) the demise of the championship itself (due to internal politics).

The Olympic Games

And there are those – and not just locals – who wonder whether or not the Sydney Olympic Games of 2000 will ever be surpassed. Memorable not just for elevating the party atmosphere of the opening and closing ceremonies to a new high, but for the friendliness and warmth of the volunteer officials, and the standard of organisation. The entire nation got behind the event, and that is the reason it was so successful.

The Country On Display

In a broader sense, it is the same sort of collective effort that is responsible for all of these achievements. Unlike many nations, we see the whole country as being on display when hosting events like this. You could say that when visitors drop in, we tend to get out the best china and hide any dirty linen.

Every nation has some event which creates this sort of unity to at least some extent. In the US, it is arguably the 4th Of July (though some would argue in favour of Thanksgiving Day), but my choice would be the Superbowl. That’s the American event that sets the standard for all similar events around the world, the one that they all try and emulate.

The same is true of every nation – there is always some arena in which they take pride in being the best in the world, the nation that others try to copy. Since international sports bring outside observers, it is often in the sporting arena that these positions of excellence are achieved (but not always – consider the Swiss, whose neutrality is their position of excellence).

Lessons For RPG Nations – The Focus Of National Pride

And the same will be true of every nation created for an RPG, as well. The selection of some achievement to be the ‘national focus’ of their pride is something that will arise from a limited range of options based on their circumstances, culture, and national identity. The origins of dominance might well be accidental; cricket in Australia was largely a pastime or hobby, and not a profession, until Australia first defeated England in 1882. Even then, it took half a century and the infamous Bodyline series before the transition of cricket to a professional sport seriously began, and it was the advent of one-day cricket and the World Series in 1977 that participants were able to earn enough to become full-time professionals.

So the choices are fairly wide open – but will reflect something unique about the nation and its culture. There will be a resonance between the achievement and the values of the nation, and that resonance can provide a path for the PCs to tread into an awareness of a distinct identity for each nation.

Meanwhile, at The Commonwealth Games

Australia is doing better in some areas than expected, and worse in others, and is likely to fall a little short of the overall ambition of bettering the total medal tally from 4 years ago (currently 137 medals, 61 Gold). England and Canada have both stolen victories that Australia expected to be ours, but have lost out elsewhere. It must be a bittersweet experience for the English, because as of this writing, India were number two in the gold medal count, with 29 gold and 74 overall, though the English are number two in total medals (105, with 26 gold). Canada are “languishing” in 4th place with 59 medals, 22 of them gold.

Any one of the three non-Australian countries at the top of the table could emerge on top – with only 7 golds separating the three, second place overall is certainly up for grabs. One thing’s for sure: someone’s ambitions are going to be disappointed.

It is the unpredictability of sport that makes it so popular in Australia – and the belief that anyone can beat anyone else on their day. That belief is equally true in an RPG…

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