What happens when art and sport collide?

We Aussies are mad about sport, and who can blame us? It’s not just about watching a game; it’s soaking up the love, the excitement, the buzz. But what happens when our love for sport bumps into the world of art? It’s like two worlds colliding, revealing stories and connections that go way beyond the game.

“Sport is so much more than just a game. It’s a creator of bonds, a stirrer of emotions — pretty much what great art is about. That’s why I gravitate to both worlds,” says comedian, actress, writer and radio presenter Andrea Gibbs.

“What I love about Aussie Rules? It’s just ours. There’s nothing else like it. It’s as distinctive and unique as our West Aussie humour,” she says.

“We’ve got this knack for tackling life’s rough patches with laughter to ease the way. We’re tough like that, and lucky too.”

In her upcoming play, Barracking for the Umpire, Gibbs does just that: she leverages her talent in the arts and her passion for sport to tackle pressing questions. Questions like, “How do we deal with concussions in sports?” Or “What’s up with no openly gay AFL players yet? And why is it still a mission for female sports journalists to snag a spot in the commentary box?”

“They are big, juicy questions we’re still trying to wrap our heads around in Australia,” says Gibbs.

“If you just start preaching about the big issue, you miss the real meat of the story and a way-in for an audience.

“Theatre is a great way to toss a bunch of topics out there and then, boom, you’ve got everyone yarning in the foyer after.”

Gibbs emphasises that the most important part – whether you’re cheering your team on from the stands or being engrossed in the tension between two actors on stage – are the stories shared.

“It’s in these stories, this intersection between arts and sports, that we often overlook the most beautiful connections,” says Gibbs.

“A reminder that when funding bodies set us up as rivals, they miss the point entirely - arts and sports, we’re both in the business of capturing hearts, just in different arenas.”

The story of Barracking for the Umpire started with Gibbs’ dad, a footy player for Donnybrook in the late 60s / early 70s when concussion protocols were, ‘Can you walk? Can you talk? Get back out there. Do not let them see you hurting.’ After a series of hard head knocks, he was forced to hang up his boots.

“It speaks to the universal experience of ageing, whether it’s grappling with our own fragility or that of someone we love,” says Gibbs.

There’s a growing awareness of the impact of hard head knocks, making this story all the more relevant. And the issue extends far beyond the games we watch on TV, striking the heart of grassroots football, too.

“Community athletes face collisions as severe as those we see on television or read about in the headlines, yet their struggles often go unseen,” says Gibbs.

“It’s more than about footy, it’s about what we are willing to sacrifice for the things we love most.”

There are so many other examples that echo this sentiment. Surfers are willing to share their stage with apex predators to dance on water, and skaters are willing to break bones for their concrete expressions.

Much like Barracking for the Umpire, sport can be seen elsewhere as a vehicle for deeper narrative and meaningful storytelling, showing us that we have a collective interest and a yearning for the human experience of superstar athletes. In Through The Doggy Door, filmmaker Alani Media films his friend and surfer Sheldon Paishon. The film not only portrays Paishon’s natural surfing talent, but also the harsh realities of homelessness and poverty in the Westside of Oahu.

Similarly, sporting icons Michael Jordan and David Beckham recently captivated the world when they released their documentaries, not only because of their fame but because the stories being told touch on themes that extend beyond sporting successes and into relatable realms.

“Sports-related stories tap into an audience’s capacity for identification and deep emotional investment. When you see yourself or your experiences reflected in a story, there’s an immediate sense of connection,” says Gibbs.

Perhaps this is the greatest victory of all: that sport has the ability to shine a light on an issue, and ultimately connect with people all over the world in more ways than one – enriching our cultural experiences and understanding. Let us take this as an invitation to continue to celebrate the intersections of art and sport. Because we are, after all, all part of the same team.

This article was originally published in April 2024 on PerthNow.