Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

The Fall of Australasia and the Demise of the Empire Olympic Team

Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

The Fall of Australasia and the Demise of the Empire Olympic Team

Article excerpt

The bearing of a national flag at the Opening Ceremony of an Olympic Games is one of the most singular honours that can be afforded to an athlete. But how much of an honour is it to bear the flag of another nation? Two athletes from New Zealand, H. St. A. Murray and Malcolm Champion, have experienced this somewhat bizarre situation by carrying the Australian flag into the stadium in 1908 and 1912 respectively. (1) This paper attempts to provide an understanding of the "ambiguous and overlapping identities" that informed Australian and New Zealand representation at the Olympic Games prior to 1920. (2) Australasian teams, comprised of athletes from Australia and New Zealand, competed at the London Olympic Games of 1908 and the Stockholm Games four years later. The two nations have fielded separate teams since the Antwerp Games of 1920. This paper takes a transnational approach to understanding how identity was adopted in this period by Australasian athletes. Nationalist interpretations of the fall of Australasia in an Olympic sense are rejected in favour of a pan-British understanding. Nationalism is similarly eschewed as a reason for the demise of imperial cooperation at the Olympic Games.

The Transnational Approach

The current wave of transnational history derives from debates within American historiography. "The Internationalization of History" by Akira Iriye and "American Exceptionalism in an Age of International History" by Ian Tyrrell are recognized as seminal articles that led to the development of transnational history within American historiography. (3) Iriye argued that historians "should make an effort to discuss problems whose significance transcends local boundaries." (4) Tyrrell explicitly argued for transnational history as a way to counter notions of exceptionalism that permeated American historiography. (5) The concept of transnational history underwent a process of definition at a series of conferences held at La Pietra in Florence, Italy, resulting in the publication of Rethinking American History in a Global Age. Iriye defined transnational history as imp[lying] "various types of interactions across national boundaries," as opposed to international history, which "implies a relationship among nations." (6) To Tyrrell, transnational history "concerns the movement of peoples, ideas, technologies and institutions across national boundaries." (7) Ann Curthoys and Marilyn Lake employ a similar definition in an Australian context. (8)

Several issues raised by transnational history are important for the purposes of this paper. First and foremost is Tyrrell's argument that comparative history had not adequately "transcend[ed] the boundaries of nationalist historiography." While not denying the importance of "nationalism and the nation-state in the modern world," Tyrrell argued that "the primacy of these concepts" was accepted too readily by historians. (9) This paper challenges the primacy of nationalist explanations without denying that a tangible sense distinctiveness marked both New Zealand responses to Australasia and Australian responses to Empire. Australasian representation was adopted and imperial representation was suggested in an era when nationalism was not as significant to Australians and New Zealanders as is currently the case.

Another aspect of transnational history deals with the way in which the formation of national identity is "profoundly affected by transnational contingencies." (10) Tyrrell uses this phrase to elucidate the manner in which William Milligan Sloane explained the nature of American power in his role as a professor of history at Columbia University. Through the work of Stephan Wassong, Sloane is also recognized as a key figure in the rise of the Olympic Movement in the United States. (11) A burgeoning Australian nationalism is rejected as the reason for the failure of the adoption of an Imperial Olympic team. The type of representation finally proposed was criticized for a host of reasons, and even those that had previously supported the concept rejected this scheme as too radical. …

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