Unchained Melody: Becoming a born-again sports fan

By Melody Thomas

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One day Melody Thomas found herself, suddenly and without warning, caring about the rugby score. She explores what has brought about this new-found love of sports and whether it’s here to stay.

The world of sport has never held much interest for me. This is partly a defensive position – lacking natural athleticism, I rejected sporting endeavours before they had the chance to reject me. But I remember some magic moments from before puberty made me ungainly: frozen fingers on a Saturday morning netball court, the thrill of a perfectly hit T-ball, limbs and lungs bursting as my team and I pushed for the win. These were joys I once understood, but over time they became lost to me.

Now, it’s all coming back. Not entirely out of nowhere, though. It started with the 2021 Olympics, and that BBC interview with Ruby Tui following the rugby win against Russia. Having only seen men’s post-match interviews, I wasn’t prepared for the charm, humour and ease of Ruby’s. What a crack-up! What a charmer. How could you not fall in love with her instantly? How could you not want her to succeed?

So in 2022, I was among the brand new rugby fans who turned up in droves to support the Black Ferns for the Rugby World Cup. I wasn’t there because they’re the most dominant team in all of rugby, winning over 85% of their tests (though their quick, open, running rugby style is certainly part of the allure). I wasn’t there because I felt obliged to support women in sport. I was there because I couldn’t stand the idea of not being there! I was there because it was exciting and dramatic and stressful, and I desperately wanted our team (our team!?) to win. And they did, in an intense final against England, after which Tui gifted us another post-match interview moment.

Then this year, the FIFA Women’s World Cup was hosted in Aotearoa and Australia. Initially, ticket sales were slow – a week before kick-off, only half of New Zealand’s stadium seats had been sold. To encourage interest, sponsors gave away 20,000 tickets, but there was still a notable absence of buzz. Would New Zealanders support the best female football players in the world? Or would the tournament fall flat?

Of course we know now that despite its slow start, the World Cup obliterated sales and viewing targets, breaking records many times over. A million New Zealanders tuned in to the opening game and more than 700,000 attended matches in person. The Football Ferns’ win against Norway ignited support for both our own team and the tournament in general, lifting names like Hannah Wilkinson, CJ Bott, Ali Riley, Indiah-Paige Riley, and Jacqui Hand into mainstream consciousness. After New Zealand dropped out of the competition, many of us transferred our support to Australia’s Matildas, watching heart-in-throat as they took the penalty shootout against France, and mourning their loss to England in a semi-final match that would become the most watched television event in Australian history.

All over the country, people like me, who not long ago would have avoided a sporting discussion like the plague, found ourselves starting them. Please! Tell me your opinion on the alternatives to penalty shoot-outs for deciding knockout match outcomes! Tell me about the pros and cons of marketing sport personality-first versus team-first! Send me that picture of NZ captain Ali Riley in rainbow nail polish on Fox News so I may share it on my own feed!

How did this happen?! How did a 38-year-old who previously wore their sporting disinterest as a badge of honour turn into an annoyingly intense superfan? Is it really as simple (and reductive) as the fact that women are playing?

That will be part of the answer, but it’s not all of it. Because if I’m completely honest, my ears were first perked in sports’ direction by men. When Colin Kaepernick first took the knee in 2016, saying he could not stand to show pride in the flag of a country that oppressed Black people. Again in 2018, when All Black TJ Perenara called out Israel Folau’s homophobia, telling young people navigating their sexuality (and especially Māori and Pasifika young people) that they are “perfect as they are”, and soon after wore a wristband in support of land occupiers at Ihumātao.

I know the arguments about sport not being the place for politics, but we have been shown time and time again that sport cannot be siloed off from the rest of society: from the history-making protests against the Springbok tour in 1981 to the recent suspension of Spanish federation chief Luis Rubiales for kissing Spanish player Jenni Hermoso without her consent. As author, rugby mind, and More Than Equal CEO Ali Donnelly said recently, even if sporting bodies wanted to mind their own business and avoid politics, it’s just not possible. At the heart of every sport are people, and if we want to enjoy the spoils of their work, we should care about how those people are treated, and how they treat others.

And how much more interesting is sport when you know about the real fights those players are facing! How much more do you want them to win, when you know what they stand for. Professional sport provides a remarkable platform, commanding the attention of whole nations and igniting collective imaginations: what a waste to see the people on that stage gagged, their personalities sanitised. How boring.

The inseparability of politics and sport, is nowhere more apparent than for female players, for whom simply existing in spaces built by and for men is potentially an act of protest. And despite its fundamental politicism – perhaps even because of it – women’s participation in sport is growing dramatically.

Following the success of our women in the 2021 Rugby World Cup, registrations of women and girls to play went “through the roof”, and a similar trend will undoubtedly follow for football. As NZ sport commentator Alice Soper told me, “This World Cup reveals once again the depth of the pool women’s sports is swimming in and what lies dormant beneath the surface.

Now is the time for sporting organisations to stop playing in the shallows and dive right in. When they do, they will find, that the water is fine.”

What I’m watching

A holy trifecta of the female experience (courtesy of The NZ International Film Festival and Greta Gerwig)

Barbie, directed by Greta Gerwig:

‘Oh no, not more about Barbie!’ I hear you say. Well guess what, initially this whole column was going to be about Barbie, so you can be grateful.

Barbie is outrageous propaganda. I have no idea how this film was made: it should have been stopped by terrified CEOs at several points along the way. It should have been diluted into a watery, easily-swallowed, romantic, bubblegum feminist tale. But – for the most part – it wasn’t.  To say it ‘doesn’t hold back’ would be to completely undersell the way it strikes out again and again at the pain (and hilarity) of modern women’s reality. While it’s very entertaining to watch certain conservatives and men’s rights activists devoting hours of screen time to being mad about a doll (one Pastor even took to a Barbie Dreamhouse with a baseball bat wrapped in bibles), I can see why they’re mad. Barbie is blatant, left wing, feminist propaganda wrapped up in an incredibly fun, sparkly pink bow.

Long live Barbie.

How To Have Sex, directed by Molly Manning Walker

In Manning Walker’s directorial debut, three British teenagers go on a rites-of-passage holiday –drinking, clubbing and hooking up – in what should be the best summer of their lives. The film beautifully captures that fraught and precious time of life, and the charm and energy of the three young friends is infectious. It took me right back to being a teenager on trouble-finding missions with my own friends, though when I was living it I felt invincible and in charge. Viewed from the outside in (and with the benefit of age), it is an entirely different experience.

The precious bubble that exists around these girls seems so fragile alongside the raucous energy of their environment, and – unable to jump into the screen to protect them – all you can do is watch helplessly as that bubble is poked and prodded. I don’t want to give away too much of what happens, but I will say that this film is so very real, especially on the subject of sex and consent, that many people (and especially women) will find it a difficult watch. But it also captures, better than any other film I’ve seen, the complex and often confusing experience of navigating those things as a young person today. While care would need to be taken with its presentation, How to Have Sex would be an excellent addition to our sexuality education curriculum.

It is also beautifully acted and shot, and the characters stay on inside your head for a long time. 

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, directed by Anna Hints

This beautiful documentary captures the intimate practice of the Estonian smoke sauna, where women gather to clean the dirt from their ashamed and aching bodies. The film is beautifully shot, with light, smoke, water and skin providing a backdrop for conversations seeped in pain, joy, humiliation, and vulnerability. The women’s stories traverse varied ground, from the mundane and ridiculous, to the harrowing and deeply personal. The documentary is a testament to the healing power of sisterhood, ritual, and communion with nature. One of my absolute favourites from the festival lineup.


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