Sport the glue for our community

This is a story about many people in WA. It starts with a bloke called Arthur Smith.

Very few people have heard of Arthur. For me, he is one of the greatest "sportsmen" I have known. But it isn't his skill with a ball, a bat or a boat that counts.

What makes Arthur remarkable is selflessly devoting big amounts of his life to helping develop local sporting clubs. Surf lifesaving and footy have been two of his passions. He has put years of hard work into these sports for no personal reward other than the friendships it has created and the enjoyment it has brought to thousands of people. He is a sportsman in the truest sense.

Arthur doesn't know I'm writing this piece. And if he reads it, he will be surprised. But I've mentioned Arthur because his story is similar to tens of thousands of West Australians who play a vital role in our community via sport.

My dad was like Arthur. He couldn't play footy very well, but he got involved and during the 1950s was president of the Bedford Districts Youth Club, which included football, cricket and netball teams. That role made him like an extra parent to some kids. Anyone who has taken a club role will realise that they can be an influence in the lives of many children and their parents.

Because it is not kicking goals, bowling wickets or serving aces that's important in sport. It's the way it brings us together for a few hours each week to play a game, train kids or meet friends.



Too often, sporting heroes distract us from what is important about sport. We can all admire stars like Nic Naitanui, Catherine Cox or Adam Gilchrist, but let's remember they are the products of sport, they do not create it. It is the Arthur Smiths, and the Dads like mine, who create sport and the benefits it brings.

So what are the benefits of sport to WA? Here is a short list that's hard to argue with.

Sport keeps us healthy in body and mind. This is particularly important when technology is making more people inactive and isolated. And it's not just kids being affected. Sport gets us all moving, which leads to fitness. Technology supposedly makes us more connected, but it doesn't connect us as much as when we stand on the edge of a field talking to other parents or playing with our mates. Sport means connecting with people, which means more friendship, less loneliness and less mental illness.

Sport teaches us how to work in a team and think of other people apart from ourselves. The self-discipline that comes with being part of any team is vital in life. After all, a 10am game starts at a specific time, not when you choose to turn up. Sharing the workload that comes with being part of a team, finding the end result enjoyable, is an important lesson in life.

Sport creates friendships that last lifetimes and unites different cultures. Even if it only takes a few hours, supporting or playing sport gives people a shared goal. When we have something in common, it's easy to talk, spread the load, find something to laugh about. That's how friendships are formed and a community created. On the edge of the game parents meet parents, siblings find siblings and grandparents share memories.

Sport lets kids and parents dream. They dream about making an AFL team, standing on centre court at Wimbledon, or looking down from the blocks of an Olympic pool.

Sure, they don't dream about being treasurer of the netball club, but the adults who do those roles are usually sharing the dreams of their kids. You can't bring friends or family any closer together than sharing dreams.

The closest thing to sport for helping to create a community is education. The local school is an important part of a community, but it's not quite the same. You can't stay at primary school for ever, but you can spend most of your life playing at the local club.

State governments can never invest enough in helping parents to build sporting teams in their communities, especially in a city such as Perth that is sprouting suburbs every year. Not to mention regional communities that need to draw people together over vast distances. No sensible government would want to reduce its investment in sport when our community is growing. Too many people care.

The message to State governments about sport is simple. If you want to maintain happy communities, ensure social cohesion, absorb new migrants easily into our community quickly and address serious social problems such as obesity and teen suicide, then get people involved in sport, whenever and wherever you can.

Governments have done some good work in sport over many years. Most recently, the small subsidy to pay the club fees of underprivileged children was a great initiative to help many kids get an early positive experience in life.

The Royalties for Regions program has significantly improved the lives of many people in regional areas by developing sports facilities for the community to use. It has enabled country clubs to raise the level of local sporting competitions and helped people stay in their communities and keep developing their skills to a higher level.

The structure of football established in the 1980s has delivered many benefits to our community. By making revenue from games at Patersons Stadium flow back into local footy via the WA Football Commission, previous State governments ensured our community was stronger.

The structure also means the West Coast Eagles and Fremantle Dockers pay millions in "dividends" to the commission and this money also ends up supporting sport in our community. This is why the discussions about who runs our new stadium are so important to all of us.

Ultimately, sport will only thrive in the hands of thousands of volunteers across WA, but it's important State governments of all persuasions give them a helping hand.

To finish this story, I'll get back to Arthur. He's in his mid-80s now. I hope he is in good health. I must look him up again soon and tell him that I believe it's through his efforts, and those of people like him, that our community is great.

Everyone has a chance to be Arthur. We can all get involved in sport. You will be better off.

Grant Dorrington OAM has been a leading football administrator, coach and player with four decades of involvement in WA sport and the community. He was chairman of the Road Safety Council for more than a decade.

The West Australian

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