The great global citizen and broadcaster Les Murray is gone, but not before he left a mark on this nation. Even if, like me, your chances of truly understanding the offside rule hover just somewhere south of hopeless, you could not fail but to be swayed by the passions of the man. When he spoke, sometimes shouted, of his “World Game”, it was bloody hard work to remain unmoved. This voice, one I first heard as a child, was never simply describing the movement of a ball or of athletes. It was describing, with such brio and conviction, a bigger arena; one where we could all get along for a while—even into overtime.
It’s no secret now that Murray, who started out at SBS as a subtitler, was conscious that his love for association football was a means to prod Australians into a wider kind of love. The guy had the best kind of agenda: to force us into a field of mutual understanding. It was clear that he loved football, but it’s clearer still that he saw the potential football had to agitate for an everyday democracy. You could pick your team, still retain your cultural identity, but the terms of competition were no longer mean or violent. Through Murray, we saw that we could wear club colours and we could exist, even joyfully, in the same space.
It was clear that he loved football, but it’s clearer still that he saw the potential football had to agitate for an everyday democracy.
For two halves of 45 minutes each, Murray not only made a great call but the point to me and other Skips that cultural difference was not a big deal, it simply constituted a fact of Australian life. In every presentation, he seemed to be urging: this is the world game, why not cheer it on?
He always came across as such an agreeable bloke on telly that it’s tempting for someone like me, a white non-migrant with an accent Aussie enough for the ladies’ auxiliary of the RSL, to think of his achievements as easy. But, if I use my head, I know that they could not have been. To have come to command such a central voice in Australian sporting culture with a “foreign” inflection must have met with cruel confrontation outside the walls of the media. To consistently demonstrate that this nation was capable of shifting—even if to something as simple as another football code—must have infuriated those whose habit it is to resist change.
I think if it were not for advocates like Murray, or Nicky Winmar or Adam Goodes or Cathy Freeman, I’d think of sports as the province of violent ockerism. I’d have no time for it as spectator or participant.
Murray’s legacy is unlikely to be overstated. With patience and enthusiasm, he made an adjustment to the culture over time. Something in the heads of sports-mad Australians clicked back into working order thanks to Les. But, something in the legs of this sports-averse Australian changed, too. I think if it were not for advocates like Murray, or Nicky Winmar or Adam Goodes or Cathy Freeman, I’d think of sports as the province of violent ockerism. I’d have no time for it as spectator or participant.
On Sunday, I was icing my quadriceps as I read the news of Murray’s death. I’d run a half-marathon event in the city of Melbourne. I came in at 2:14—‘round 9.4 clicks an hour—so this is no boast of athleticism. It is a record of physical transformation, though.
Throughout 12 years of school, I’d had the Note From Mum. I resented sport, which I experienced always as a field of exclusion. With my stubby legs and very low vision, I was as welcome as a good idea.
More than a contest of bodies, sports seemed to be a trial of my belonging. It was a way for some kids to determine their own value by deciding that others had none.
I may never understand that offside rule, but through his broadcast, I understood that acts of physical endurance weren’t always undertaken out of spite.
For some of us, sport can easily become a site of absolute intolerance. We come to think of it as mindless and cruel, the very opposite of reason. The people who can break your actual physical resistance to sport, I have found, are the people who have changed sport itself.
For me, Winmar was one of these people; I tacked this picture of his resistance up to my desk back in 1993 and finally found the means to take up the self-harming family practice of supporting the St Kilda Football Club. Murray was absolutely one of these people. I may never understand that offside rule, but through his broadcast, I understood that acts of physical endurance weren’t always undertaken out of spite.
My legs are still stubby and my vision is still very low, so I’ll do the nation’s amateur teams a favour and stick to the sport of long-distance running. And I’ll continue to join thousands of others at community events. I’ll follow their custom of smiling grimly to others at the water stations and much more broadly as we slowpokes stumble together through the finish line.
These stubby legs, as it happens, are not the worst shape for long-distance. Sport, as it turns out, is one of the best things those legs have ever done. Look. It’s only Wednesday and they’re still a little tender. But I’m glad to have this reminder of the great broadcaster, who made the idea of the world more palatable to Australia and sport more palatable to me.