I read Geoffrey Blainey: A Shorter History of Australia by Nick Nicholas on Aphypnēsis Amichaiou , which actually posed this question. And if I hadn’t left the book in the hotel… well, I still wouldn’t look it up.
But in brief:
- Australians defined themselves early on (like, 1820s) against the British, for being more fit and active, in their new country.
- Australians had a lot more leisure time than Dickensian Britons did; remember that the eight-hour day was pioneered in Australia in the 1850s. So sporting fixtures became a prominent part of the community already at that time: not just racecourses, satisfying their need for gambling, but also sports ovals, satisfying their need to watch sport and participate in sport.
- That participation thing is key: sport establishes itself more readily as part of your identity if you and most people you know actually play one.
- Sport gave a very early opportunity for Australians to assert a distinct identity against Britain, and even to beat Britain at its own game (particularly at cricket).
- Once those elements were in place, they just kept going. After cricket as an international spectator sport, athletics and tennis. Cricket and the football codes, as both participatory and spectator sports. The football codes as a new tribalism (something familiar elsewhere of course). The Ashes, rugby, tennis, the Olympics, the Empire and then Commonwealth games, as ways Australia gained international prominence.