Australia’s Sporting Evolution

Australia’s Sporting Evolution

The evolution of Australian sport has closely followed and influenced Australia’s development as a nation.

Well before the arrival of European settlers in the late eighteenth century, Australian Aboriginal societies celebrated athleticism and dexterity through footraces, ball games and spear throwing contests. For the early European arrivals, sport was one way of maintaining Australia’s connection with distant Britain and attempting to recreate European society in Australia. Early migrants introduced horseracing, cricket and rugby to the Australians colonies, who quickly set up amateur and professional competitions emulating the British example. The colonies also adapted British sports to Australian conditions, as with the creation of Australian Rules Football .

As the idea of a unique Australian identity took hold in the late 1800s, sport increasingly became a tool for distinguishing Australia from Britain. When the Commonwealth of Australia replaced the previously separated colonies in 1901, Australians national sporting teams quickly became an expression of Australia’s newly unified identity. The athleticism and physical daring of Australia’s soldiers on and off the battlefield during World War One and World War Two further reinforced Australia’s growing international reputation as a sporting nation.

Following World War Two, sport became a point of integration and differentiation for new waves of Southern European migrants, who introduced soccer and adopted existing sports in their new Australian home. Club sports and weekend youth competitions increasingly became part of the social fabric of Australian communities.

At the same time, a growing Australian beach culture encouraged the emergence of a volunteer surf lifesaving movement, and widespread water safety education at Australian schools. Improving rights for women saw a burgeoning in women’s sports, led by pioneers like 14-time Grand Slam winner Evonne Goolagong. Australia’s hosting of the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 and other individual sporting successes in tennis, boxing and athletics saw Australia named as the “most sports obsessed country” in the world.


Photo by Tourism Australia

From the 1970s, sponsorship and media broadcasting increasingly came to determine the success of Australian sporting codes and teams. In 1981, the Australian Institute of Sport was founded, followed by the establishment of state-based institutes of sport, and the development of a sports science community institutes and universities. At the same time, Australian schools formalised the inclusion of physical education and interschool sport in school curriculums. 

The net result was Australia’s fourth place finish at the Sydney Olympics and first place in the Sydney Paralympics in 2000. Today, Australia continues to finish in the top 10 countries at both the Olympics and Paralympics, as well as maintaining strong amateur participation in sport across the country.