|We come from a land Down Under|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
Among the enjoyable lessons of travel is learning that the rest of the world is just as sports-crazed as we are. It's just that they care about sports we never even give a moment's thought.
Consider Australia, where I had the pleasure of spending a recent two-week (and still too short) vacation. The Australians may be even more passionate about sports than we are, and what captured their interest most during my trip was the sage of Shane Warne.
Warne tested positive for a diuretic (which is sometimes used to mask steroid use), but claimed that he hadn't known it was a banned substance.
I know, I know. That sort of thing happens all the time everywhere, and that's what the athlete always says when he's caught. But what made Warne's case special was his defense. He claimed his mother gave the diuretic pill to him so that he would look good for the cameras at a press conference. I swear, I'm not making that up.
While a couple columnists figured that Warne is vain enough that he was probably telling the truth, the Australian Cricket Board wasn't convinced. It gave him a one-year suspension.
So there were several stories a day leading up to the decision. There were multiple stories in each paper the day after the decision. And there were at least three stories a day in each paper every day for a week following the decision. For all I know, there still are three stories a day. I hadn't seen such media hysteria since Super Bowl week. It was as if baseball banned Barry Bonds for using steroids amid rumors that he was half-drunk when he hit his 73rd home run, bet on baseball with Pete Rose and had an affair with Sandy Koufax.
Despite Warne's absence, the Australian national team was playing superbly in the World Cup cricket tournament in Africa. Or at least I think so. The game stories might as well have been written in ancient Sanskrit for all the sense I was able to make out of some of them. One passage:
"After getting used to the slow, seaming North West Stadium wicket, Martyn teamed up with Darren Lehmann (29 not out) to pilot Australia to 2-170 off 36 rain-reduced overs -- a total elevated to 198 under the Duckworth-Lewis run revision system.''
And that was one of the clearer paragraphs.
Meanwhile, the country's beloved Australian Rules Football, or Footy as it is known there, was just beginning again with a preseason tournament played throughout the country.
ESPN owes an enormous debt to Australian Rules Football, which filled large segments of programming in the days before the network had contracts with the NFL, NBA and baseball. There never was any explanation of the game's rules (the broadcasts were simply tapes of Australian broadcasts), leaving American viewers perplexed by the chaos on the field. My college friends and I spent many a night watching the odd broadcasts from Down Under, trying to figure out the rules and chuckling at the long-coated referees who signaled scores with as much precision and bravado as Robert DeNiro snapping out a gun in "Taxi Driver." It was the perfect sport to watch while drinking.
It was even better in person, though I still was puzzled by the rules. How far can a player run with the ball before he has to pass it? When can a player take a shot at the goal? Is tackling allowed or not? If it is, how come they don't do it more often? If it isn't, how come the occasional violent tackle went unpunished?
As much a part of Australian sports as Footy is, it isn't immune to the same financial difficulties hurting North American teams. Aussie football attendance was down last year, and the paper quoted various commentators worrying about the game's hold on the country's fans in the face of international competition from other sports. One team even held a telethon during the broadcast of a game.
"G'day -- this is Joe Harners and I challenge all Outback poddy-dodgers and swagmen to meet or beat my pledge of 50 quid."
As little as I understood the sports, I found it very entertaining to read the coverage in the papers each day, trying to decipher the game stories and smiling at the Australian newspapers' more permissive approach to salty language. In a Page 1 story on a study claiming that Australians are drinking significantly less beer these days, a bartender was quoted this way: "Sounds like bulls--- to me." [Expleted not deleted.] Which is not a quote you often find on the front page of the New York Times.
A column on Cathy Freeman's divorce and (what else?) Warne's suspension ended with this wonderful paragraph: "Cathy can run and Shane can bowl. All the rest is bulls---."
No matter where you live, it's hard to sum up sports and sports coverage better than that.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.