Sportmen show true-blue spirit

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 January, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 January, 1994, 12:00am

LIKE the Hang Seng Index, Australia's sporting stocks soared on the international scene in the latter part of the year with the news that Sydney would host the year 2000 Olympics.

But sporting stocks on the domestic scene hit rock bottom not too long after when it was announced that a series of clandestine meetings had culminated in Adelaide losing the Australian Formula One Grand Prix to the country's unofficial ''sporting capital'', Melbourne.

Such was the handling of the affair that even sports-mad Melburnians were crying foul play.

But the naming of Sydney to host the landmark 2000 Olympic Games in a glittering ceremony in Monaco was a triumph of sport over political expediency.

From the moment the final list of candidates was announced, it was clear it was a two-horse race between Sydney and Beijing.

Aussie hopes were buoyed when a preliminary International Olympic Committee report rated Sydney the best-qualified city to stage the Games based on a broad-based list of criteria.

But, in the run up to the announcement on September 23, Sydney's outright favouritism was being eroded by a full-blown push by the Chinese.

It was felt China should be given the chance to prove to the world that it had put the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations and subsequent killings behind it.

The voting reflected that mood: Beijing led the first two ballots and it was not until the final ballot, when the voting block that supported the English bid for Manchester threw its weight behind the Aussie cause, that the contingent from Down Under came from behind to win.

While behind-the-scenes dealings dominated headlines in Australian newspapers, sports fans were again able to indulge in that most desirable of pastimes, Pommie bashing.

And the medium for the 4-1 success in the Ashes cricket tour of England was the purveyor of an all but lost art, leg-spinner Shane Warne.

The blond 23-year-old, who confessed several times to preferring surfing and cold beer to flannels and flippers, destroyed the Englishmen with a mesmerising display of spin bowling.

He and off-spinner Tim May drew accolades from scribes the length and breadth of the British Isles.

The Aussie doyen of cricket presenters, Richie Benaud, no mean leg-spinner himself, was moved to say in one emotional moment that Australia had not boasted a better pair of spinners for 40 years.

Young Turks Matthew Hayden, Damien Martyn and Michael Slater also exposed to the cricketing world a rich seam of batting talent that will keep Australia in good stead right through to the next century.

Australia's golfing stocks also soared in July when the Great White Shark, Greg Norman, for so long in the doldrums, captured his second British Open.

Devoid of motivation and plagued by a flawed technique spawned through lack of confidence, Norman silenced his critics with a performance of raw power off the tees and finesse around the greens rarely seen at the highest level.

It was no flash in the pan. Norman finished third on the money winners' chart on the US PGA Tour and during 1993 had the lowest average round per tournament contested, just a shade under 70.

Steve Elkington continued to make a name for himself on the US Tour and some of the media claimed he was the best player in the world that year not to have won a major.

Sadly, no one has emerged from the ranks to return Australia to the forefront of tennis, once ruled by the likes of Rod Laver and John Newcombe. But Wally Masur did reach the semi-finals of the US Open against all odds.

It was not all bad: Australia made it to the final of the Davis Cup, but it was a token gesture against the German juggernaut.

Michelle Martin reached the pinnacle of her chosen sport, squash, following in the proud tradition of the legendary Heather Mackay.

But Australia's men could not seem to break the Pakistani dominance, led by Jansher Khan, who holds sway now that the great Jahangir Khan has retired. Ironically, he wrested the mantle from Australia's last truly great player, Geoff Hunt.

Australians tend to treat their sporting legends with special reverence, but one who was not afforded such dignity was former rugby league star Wally Lewis.

The former captain of the Kangaroos, who turned his hand to coaching as his glittering playing career wound down, was unceremoniously dumped mid-season as coach of the Gold Coast Seagulls in the Winfield Cup domestic competition.

While the Seagulls took a mortgage of the wooden spoon, their high flying neighbours a mere 60 kilometres north, the Brisbane Broncos, ran away with the premiership, humiliating the St George Dragons in a lop-sided final, 14-6.

It was the second successive year the world club champions, who beat English side Wigan 22-8 the previous October, had defeated the Dragons in the final.

Down south in Aussie Rules-mad Melbourne, the Essendon Bombers made sure it was a blue September day for Carlton fans with a runaway 44-point, 20.13 (133) to 13.11 (89) victory.

It was Essendon's 15th premiership, and it tied them with Carlton, the Blues, as the most successful club in the Australian Football League.

The legion of good sports had barely stopped mumbling into their beers about the demise of Wally Lewis when ''The Race that Stops a Nation'', the Melbourne Cup, was won in emphatic style by, no, not another Kiwi horse, but a dour stayer from the Emerald Isle.

Sent off at 16-1, Vintage Crop, with Irish champion jockey Michael Kinane, had a big Irish contingent of visitors kissing more than the Blarney Stone when he romped home from 200-1 outsider, Te Akau Nick.

The quinella paid A$600 (about HK$3,000) and gave the good sports reason to cry into their beers.

But there was a positive side to Vintage Crop's win: the international profile of the Antipodes' greatest staying test for Thoroughbreds has been lifted beyond measure with the promise of more northern raiders in the wings on the first Tuesday in November at Flemington racecourse.

There is no question that the prospect of hosting the world's premier sporting event for the second time will give Australia impetus to push above their tradition in sporting excellence.

The 1956 Melbourne Olympics spawned icons such as swimmers Jon Henricks, Murray Rose and Dawn Fraser and sprinter Betty Cuthbert.

Maybe the good sports in the bar could stop crying into their beers long enough to start assessing the country's gold medal chances in Sydney.