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Swimming in Australia: A Cultural Study

Gould, Shane Elizabeth (2019) Swimming in Australia: A Cultural Study. PhD thesis, Victoria University.

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Abstract

To all appearances swimming in Australia is a popular and serious activity. In fact, one organisation goes so far to claim that ‘Australia swims, it is who we are. Swimming is in our cultural DNA’. Governments and other Australian agencies provide generous funding for public pools, water safety, and swimming education, as well as high performance sport. Swimming and water safety organizations make up a vibrant commercial service industry. Swimming has become central to Australian national identity, reaching an apotheosis every four years at the Olympic Games. Despite this level of financial investment and apparent cultural value, less than half of all Australian children can swim 50 metres by the time they leave primary school and an average of 282 people drown each year. This interpretive cultural study uses a variety of qualitative methods to interrogate swimming as a prominent movement culture. It explores aspects of swimming culture in Australia such as beach swimming, pool and river play, lessons, and racing, and asks whether swimming is an Australian ‘thing’ or is the narrative hyperbolic? As an Australian champion swimmer I realise I have contributed to this narrative, which adds a unique dimension to this study, but is only part of the story. Positioning myself as subject, insider, questioner, and commentator, I examine slogans used to sustain national identity narratives, and peruse roles of industry organizations, asking “who says what about swimming, and why?” I undertook 12 weeks of field research driving across Australia, stopping in country towns and regional cities, asking “where do you like to swim? And, what do you do when you go swimming?” When I saw ‘swimmers’ standing in water at the beach, I asked myself, “how do people define “swim” when they go swimming?” For those people who say they swim, what does ‘swim’ mean to them? I also immersed myself with adult ocean swimmers, who create a sense of place through their aquatic wanderings in the ocean in Tasmania. To analyse this fieldwork data, I utilised insights from educational, social, and environmental geography perspectives, and paid particular attention to the values of movement in nature, which is the essence of swimming in water. This thesis reveals the complex meanings that constitute the culture of swimming in Australia. There is a tension between the reality of Australians in the water and the hyperbolic feel-good narratives, such as ‘a nation of swimmers’ and there are differences in cultural-linguistic meanings, and organisations who blur private and public service, as they vie for public funds and compete for the same customers. Revealing these polysemic meanings and tensions contributes to broader academic debates about the culture(s) of sport and physical activity, and the place and meaning of swimming in Australian national identity. Findings from this cultural study are also potentially significant to swimming and water safety education. For example, findings from this study suggest that swimming education could be more effective if the significance of humans’ reciprocal and interactive relationship with water, which differs perceptually and somatically to experiences on land, was embedded into swimming instruction models.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD thesis)
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Uncontrolled Keywords: swimming; swimmers; culture; national identity; narratives; styles; swimming lessons; Australia
Subjects: Current > FOR Classification > 2002 Cultural Studies
Current > Division/Research > Institute for Health and Sport
Depositing User: VUIR
Date Deposited: 09 Jun 2020 01:35
Last Modified: 09 Jun 2020 01:35
URI: http://vuir.vu.edu.au/id/eprint/40556
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