After two years of trauma, it would be an exaggeration to say Melbourne is back to normal. Streets are peppered with For Lease signs and reminders of what was lost to the pandemic (loved ones, livelihoods, favourite local haunts).
But one industry is unquestionably booming. From excited crowds trekking to regional grounds to watch women’s footy to bitter rivalries over the willow at the ’G, spectator sport is back with a vengeance.
Sending the AFL on a Queensland holiday doesn’t seem to have affected our desire to get amongst it one bit, with the grand final between Geelong and Sydney attracting the largest crowd in decades.
Meanwhile, more than 90,000 people descended on the MCG to watch a match for the ages between Pakistan and India as part of the ICC T20 World Cup.
Even the Formula 1, which has been troubled by low ticket numbers and alienating people who aren’t models and/or billionaires, attracted record numbers earlier in the year.
Australian Open crowds were rowdy and antisocial, sure, but they were plentiful, and they didn’t euthanise any living creatures to my knowledge.
Which brings us to Tuesday, and the annual pilgrimage to the David Jones millinery department followed by a quick trip to Flemington to lose your shoes.
When the Maribyrnong River broke its banks a few weeks ago, swamping neighbourhoods with rising brown water, Flemington Racecourse gleamed emerald behind its flood wall.
It’s the most recent reminder of horse racing’s gross chokehold on this otherwise quite good city, but far from the only. As if we needed another reason to turn our attention away from the Cup. As if it hasn’t alienated itself enough with its wake of rubbish, predatory gambling and a race that too often ends with a horse hidden behind a curtain.
Melburnians had been voting with their feet – Cup attendance numbers declined 26% from 2010 to 2019. TV ratings have also plunged to record lows, as public sentiment on animal cruelty, predatory gambling ads and violence plummets. Why wouldn’t we demand better?
This is Melbourne, friends. The sporting capital of the world, where conversations must begin “What school did you go to?” and “What team do you go for?”. A city still mourning Shane Warne – heck, a city still mourning Peter Brock – but that can’t remember the names of horses that died in seven of the past eight Melbourne Cups.
We are flush with chances to witness victories, to battle for the underdog, to cheer for the winner, to rush the field, to bring oranges at half-time, to sing the club song, to spray another rich man with champagne on a podium. It runs in our blood and, to absolutely whip the analogy to death, it gets to go home to the stables afterwards.
In a city where sport is religion and seasons are determined by the shape of the ball, surely we can find something better to watch than the final moments of a beautiful animal bred for profit?