Sydney 2000, Olympic Sport and the Australian Media

By Lenskyj, Helen Jefferson | Journal of Australian Studies, September 1999 | Go to article overview
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Sydney 2000, Olympic Sport and the Australian Media

Lenskyj, Helen Jefferson, Journal of Australian Studies

Competitive sports play a central role in the everyday lives of significant numbers of Australians, whether they are active participants, spectators or supportive family members. As in most western countries, Australia's mass media reflect and reinforce this key component of popular culture. It is hard to imagine a newspaper or news broadcast that does not include coverage of sporting events. Given sport's everyday, taken-for-granted nature, the task of developing a critical analysis of sport media is all the more difficult.

A critique of Olympic sport presents special challenges, especially at this point in Australia's history with Sydney 2000 and the unprecedented amount of taxpayers' money and interest invested in Australian athletes' anticipated successes. Given the longstanding presumption that sport is apolitical (`let's not bring politics into sport'), critics of the Olympics are likely to receive a chilly reception, especially from those whose gender, class and race privileges are shored up by current sporting practices and/or by the sport industry.

The Sydney 2000 slogan `Share the Spirit' exemplifies this view of sport as an unqualified good. It suggests the spirit of Australia: the liberal myth of upward mobility through hard work and a national identity cemented by largely uncritical support for all competitive sporting endeavour.(1) The slogan also evokes the Olympic spirit: `The pursuit of sporting excellence'. Despite historical and contemporary evidence to the contrary -- for example, the 1936 Nazi Games, the Munich massacre of 1972 and the 1996 Coca Cola Games -- the Olympics have long been celebrated as a purely amateur sporting contest uncontaminated by commercialism or politics and the legacy of this image remains in evidence in much of the public and media rhetoric.

This article focuses on the ways in which the Australian media shape public opinion concerning Olympic sport in general and the Sydney 2000 games in particular. I present a deconstruction of Australian media treatment of Olympic-related issues in the first half of 1996 which was the crucial period leading up to the Atlanta games. The major print media source was the Sydney Morning Herald; other popular print media and television reports were also monitored.

`Manufacturing consent', a term first used by Walter Lippman in 1921, is central to the analysis of the political economy of the mass media developed by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky.(2) Their insights, together with Chomsky's 1989 collection of essays, Necessary Illusions, provide the theoretical framework used here.(3) Consistent with the neomarxist explanations of power exercised through ideological control rather, Chomsky's propaganda model argues that the media reflect the consensus of corporate elites. State managers will not be protected from the criticisms from the powerful corporate sector whose members may in fact use the media as a platform for an anti-government position.

In the Australian context, long-standing receptivity to anti-government sentiment, concern over unemployment and the economy, hostility to organised labour and generalised white opposition to Aboriginal activism all help to create fertile ground for pro-corporate media messages. The Sydney 2000 project has been relentlessly promoted in the media as an opportunity to boost the economy through tourism, employment and private sector investment. Critics of olympism, especially the Aboriginal leaders who called for boycott by Black nations, are scapegoated as `hijacking' Sydney 2000.(4)

The Sydney Morning Herald played an important role in generating support for Sydney 2000.(5) Coverage of the bid process was primarily in the hands of Herald journalist Sam North. Freelance journalists who attempted to `blow the whistle' on the questionable budget figures received only limited space in the major newspapers.(6) In 1993 a Herald editorial strenuously objected to the state government's alleged attempt to `straitjacket' the media.

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