My first memory of when a sporting event truly stopped the nation was in the early hours of the morning on 26 September 1983, when a yacht skippered by John Bertrand and bankrolled by Alan Bond created sailing history by winning the America’s Cup.
It was the first time the US lost the Cup in 132 years. What made the victory even more incredible was that Australia II had to come from a 1-3 defeat in the best-of-seven series to create history with a score of 4-3.
I was at boarding school in Perth at the time. Our boarding house master gave us permission to sit up into the wee hours of the morning to watch the race unfold. It was the same all over Australia.
Like most Australians, I knew very little about the sport of sailing before that night. But that didn’t matter. All we knew was that here was little old Australia taking on the might of the Americans and giving them a bloody nose. Sailing has never reached that level of fanaticism since.
A very excited Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, declared any boss who sacked a worker for not turning up the next day was a bum. Sadly that didn’t extend to our teachers at the time, who studiously, and through bleary eyes and heavy heads, ticked our names off the roll.
Almost 17 years later to the day, the Australian nation stopped again. On 25 September 2000, Cathy Freeman carried the hopes and dreams of an entire nation for one lap around Stadium Australia to win Olympic gold.
If everyone who claims they were at Stadium Australia that warm Sydney evening actually was, there must have been close to half a million crammed into the 100,000-seat venue. But that’s what the night meant to us as a nation.
And now, 23 years on, we are all stopping again. Not once, not twice, but three times at least. And every time our Matildas take to the field, they shatter more records. If they make it to this month’s World Cup final, surely it will be our most-watched sporting event ever.
On Saturday, I was given the task of finding a table at our local pub to watch the Matildas take on France. We had spent several hours during the week ringing around, but everywhere was booked out. Our local had put aside a couple of tables for walk-ups, but it was on a first-in-best-dressed scenario.
So I duly rocked up at 2:30 pm, two and a half hours before kickoff. There was a vacant table right next to the big screen. It was like I’d uncovered a gold nugget among a sea of prospectors. By kick-off, we were all crammed in cheek-by-jowl, and the atmosphere was electric.
Who would believe, in 2023, that our national women’s football team could capture the love and admiration of our nation in the way they have? Our prime minister is talking about public holidays – good luck to the premier or chief minister who stands in the way of that!
Although I wouldn’t be that confident our government would support a day off. After all, it decided not to spend money getting World Cup matches in our city. Judging by the crowds that have been at every match played in Australia during this World Cup, not being part of the action has been an enormous own goal.
We could have been part of the biggest party this country has enjoyed since Cathy Freeman. And before that, Alan Bond. One can only imagine the potential long-term spin-offs for the ACT and surrounding districts.
Let’s hope we don’t make the same mistake again. As we saw in Saturday night’s gripping penalty shoot-out, mistakes can prove very costly!