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A race to remember?

Some of the sadder aspects of Australian sporting culture will be on display over the next fortnight, as the Spring Racing Carnival plays out in Melbourne and is celebrated across the country. While the Melbourne Cup started as a genuine expression of popular culture, it’s since been appropriated by alcohol and gambling interests. It has that in common with virtually all major sporting events in Australia.

Alcohol brands have insinuated themselves into the fabric of the event and pretend they’re responsible for it by buying sponsorship and proclaiming that it’s their Melbourne Cup – whereas the Melbourne Cup was run for over 100 years without a ‘naming rights sponsor’, or any sponsor. In the same way, our various football codes and cricket competitions were organised by local sports authorities before they acquired the ubiquitous ‘sponsors’. Newspapers will be filled with full-page booze advertisements offering special deals for Cup parties and barbecues. Media columnists, bloggers and tweeters will focus on how much alcohol is consumed, how drunk they get and retail idiotic hangover cures, and pretend the real-world results of binge drinking don’t exist.

The fact is Cup Day and Cup Eve are public health disasters, as acute intoxication and alcohol-related assaults and accidents spike on those days. Research by VicHealth and Eastern Health Turning Point published in 2012 found a big increase in alcohol-related emergency department presentations and ambulance call-outs the day before Melbourne Cup, possibly as Cup Eve partygoers plan to use the Cup Day holiday in Melbourne as a ‘recovery day’.

Yet Cup organisers continue to allow their event to be strongly associated with the drug that does so much to tarnish the day and the whole carnival. It is a sign of our collective denial, because alcohol is responsible for 5500 deaths and 170,000 hospitalisations each year. Would a drug that produced one-tenth of those casualties be permitted to sponsor a sporting event, or advertise on television?

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Even worse, during the Cup Carnival, the rules of the TV Broadcast Code that prohibit alcohol advertising during daylight hours when children are likely to be watching will be scratched. Everyone agrees that children aren’t a legitimate target of alcohol marketing. No one, not even the Broadcasting Authority, can give a rational explanation for that exemption to the rule for the broadcast of live sport. If the rule is a good one, there can’t be a good reason to break it. Elite sporting bodies say they need alcohol to sponsor sport, but they said that about tobacco. Sport has no need of alcohol sponsorship – there are plenty of airlines, banks, insurance companies and sports-goods brands that would be happy to put up sponsorship money.

Australia’s sporting bodies, which love to talk about ‘leadership’, show no leadership qualities when they allow their events to be dominated by products that lead to and cause high levels of antisocial behaviour. The Melbourne Cup Carnival is the latest example, and our hospitals will be right to roster on extra staff for those days.