Who do you go for?

Dunja Kaczmarek was born in Yugoslavia in 1989 and moved to Australia with her family as a baby.  Dunja is one of the Founding Co-Editors-in-Chief of be:longing and enjoys interacting with others who feel similar connections to other places and cultures as she does.

What is it about sports that touches us so deeply?  About watching sport – watching athletes from the countries we’re from, or live in, or have roots in – that calls to our nationality, our ancestry, and our cultural identity?

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics have just come to an end and the Paralympics are about to start, and I have been in true, sports spectator heaven.  As I have sat at home, watching the swimming, shooting, gymnastics, discus, table tennis, canoe sprints, dressage, bouldering, basketball and long jump with my baby daughter, I’ve been filled with amazement.  The physical abilities, achievements and preparation of every single athlete competing in Tokyo is beyond what 99% of us can even come close to imagining, and I’ve been reminded about just how impressive and wonderful sports really are. 

But with every global sporting event that takes place year after year, the same topic tends to arise for me.  As a multicultural, immigrant individual who has grown up in, amid, between and amongst a couple of different nations and cultures, watching sports has led to me asking myself, just which country am I cheering for, and why?  Which country’s victories do I feel deep in my soul, as my own, and whose have I been able to watch with a cool distance – happy for the individual athletes, sure, but not with the same level of soul-touching pride I have felt for others?

More recently, I’ve also been asking myself whether I still feel that level of passion for any country.  And if I don’t, what does THAT mean?

To explore this whole question, I’ve been thinking back to the 2000s, when my true love for sports, and sports spectatorship, began.  The 2000s are also when I really began to think about cultural identity, and what it means to be a multicultural individual.  In many ways, it’s when I started thinking about my place in the world, and I think sports played a huge part in that.

In the year 2000, I was an 11-year-old Yugoslavian-(Serbian?)-Australian kid, living in Canberra.  The Euro 2000 football tournament was coming up, and my brother and I were beyond excited.  He was 14 and in the middle of what we would later call his soccer phase, but at the time it was his whole life.  Soccer posters littered his walls and, as his adoring, tomboyish younger sister, I was there for it.  We bought the Euro 2000s special edition magazine from the newsagency, pinned up the fold-out match schedule on our wall, and prepared ourselves to wake up in the middle of the night for the next two weeks to watch all the matches despite the time difference.  I remember thinking how GREAT it was all going to be.  We started imagining Yugoslavia being proclaimed the football champions of Europe, and could hear the cheers in the stands already.

Alas, a week or so into the tournament, it wasn’t to be, and after a particularly heartbreaking loss, I suddenly found myself consoling my desolate brother as Yugoslavia went down 6-1 – SIX to one – to The Netherlands and was knocked out of the tournament.  I remember my brother being heartbroken, anguish on his poor, dear face.   The Dutch team instantly became public enemy #1 in our house, and our tweenage hearts were indelibly marked by the entire ordeal.  All of a sudden, I felt heartbreak for the country of our birth and ancestry.  Our Yugoslavia, our beautiful country, which had been ripped apart by the wars in the 1990s…  Did it really need this loss too?  The loss was salt in the wound that I suddenly felt as my own, and I realised something.  I was Yugo. I was a Yugo kid.

Around the same time, the immigrant Yugos of Australia received a sporting double-edged sword by the name of Jelena Dokić.  A young, exciting Serbian-Australian tennis prodigy, she had gotten into the Wimbledon semi-finals in 1998 at just 15.  She had a divine, clean playing style, a never-say-die attitude, amazing wins on the global WTP tennis circuit, and… a crazy dad called Damir, whose name caused the entire Serbian-Australian diaspora to groan every time he made the news.  I remember feeling incredulous at the whole thing, and embarrassed too.  I wondered, did we really need a drunk, aggressive Serbian man making global headlines like this, and cementing the Western journalistic stereotype of Serbs being abusive war criminals in Aussies’ eyes? 

The Dokićs were an interesting case for me, as a quickly awakening Serbian-Australian.  I didn’t know exactly what to do with them.  Was I meant to be proud of Jelena and claim her as one of my own for her achievements and on-court magic (not to mention her immense strength of character, dealing with her dad), or was I meant to embarrassed by her dad for his antics and the way he smeared Serbia’s standing in Australians’ eyes?  But then I would also ask myself, wasn’t I Australian too?  Or was I Serbian in this case?  How could I be both when the two sides seemed to be pitted against each other?  I’m still not sure how I was meant to feel through it all.

Jumping a couple of years forward to 2002, I remember the World Championships in basketball taking place.  Yugoslavia was playing, and this was a time of Vlade Divac, Peđa Stojaković and Dejan Bodiroga – in short, the Serbian-Yugoslavian golden boys – and it felt like it was our time.  Back in 2001, Divac and Stojaković had both been on the Sacramento Kings team that had lost the NBA Western Conference finals in painful fashion, with a highly unlikely (and arguably impossible) buzzer beater 3-pointer by Robert Horry of the LA Lakers knocking the Kings out.  It caused heartbreak for Serbs the world over – or maybe just my own Serbian family – but either way, it hit hard.

So, in many ways, the 2002 FIBA World Championships were a chance for Divac and Stojaković – and Serbian-Yugoslavian basketball more generally – to get its payback.  And it did.  Yugoslavia won the 2002 FIBA World Championships, in a nail-biting, heart-stopping final against Argentina, despite missed free throws from Divac and an impossibly anxiety-inducing extra time that made me late for my year 8 art class at Lanyon High School that morning.  I remember my teacher scolded me for being late, but I was so proud of my heritage that day; so thrilled to be Serbian-Yugoslavian, and raspy-voiced from yelling and cheering – that I just didn’t care, even if I was otherwise a straight-A student who liked making her teachers happy.  Somehow Yugoslavia’s win was more important to me than anything that day, and it made everything okay again.

The next sporting event that left a big mark on me was the FIFA World Cup in 2006.  Australia was competing for the first time in 30 years and I was beside myself with happiness.  I had been glued to my TV in 2005 like the rest of the country when John Aloisi scored the winning penalty in the shoot-out against Uruguay in the qualifiers and finally got us into that damn World Cup.  I was thrilled, and remember thinking, finally!  Finally a sporting achievement that would get run-of-the-mill Australians excited about a European sport.  My Wog and Aussie lives would finally collide, and I was so happy.

As the tournament progressed, I cheered throatily for every pass, goal and run of Cahill, Bresciano and Aloisi, and two weeks later, when Australia got knocked out of the round of 16 by a dodgy penalty call that went in Italy’s favour, I was appalled!  I was so bitter about it – so angry for and on behalf of Australia – that it kind of surprised me.  It was the first time I had cared this much about Australia’s fate in sports, and it felt so good to be scandalised along with the rest of the country.  This showed me that I had an Australian side to me after all – and it was strong.

In many ways, then, sports had a huge influence on my sense of self growing up, from my teenage years in the 2000s to my 20s in the 2010s.  The 2010s brought more events and characters like this, and more challenges to my sense of cultural identity and loyalty.  When Serb tennis star Novak Djokovic came up the ranks, for example, but seemed to constantly get boos and jeers from the crowds at the Australian Open, it hurt me in a way that only seeing someone from your home country get treated poorly by people in your adoptive country can.  Then when the Serbian women’s basketball team won the 2015 European Championships, it made me proud as only watching your country’s team win in your favourite sport can. They hit close to home. 

Coming back to this year’s Olympics, I don’t know if I feel the same way I used to about those previous sporting events.  A few years have passed since those formative sport-watching events, and I’m 31 now – almost 32 – and married, with a baby daughter.  Plus, this year, watching the Olympics, I’ve got not only Serbia and Australia to cheer for, but also Poland, the country of my husband (and, now, daughter).

So who am I cheering for now?  Which country gets my passion and excitement?

Funnily enough, it’s a question I find myself not really wondering about.  From its beginnings as a terribly urgent, burning question that caused me existential angst and had a huge impact on the formation of my cultural identity, it’s now become an innocuous, almost academic thing.  Relevant and interesting, sure, but not so much of a harried issue for me anymore.  And I think that makes sense.

Looking back, I realise I have a few things now that I didn’t have before.  For one, I have a formed cultural identity – which is thanks in no small part to those earlier events.  I also have a few years on my old self, and a tonne of life experiences both here and overseas, which have helped to solidify my sense of place in the world.  Finally, I’ve also got a new sense of belonging within my life, and that’s to my new family.  So really, I know who I am now.  I’m a proud Serbian-Yugoslavian-Australian migrant individual who loves her family, loves sports, cares about justice and history, and loves to celebrate all the different parts and cultures of the world, whether I’m from them, live in them or feel a connection to them – or not.

So now, watching middle distance runners from Guinea-Bissau, weightlifters from Pakistan, boxers from Cuba, modern pentathletes from Great Britain, divers from China, swimmers from Australia, air pistol shooters from Serbia, or water polo goalies from Greece, I feel connected to them all, and honestly cheer for all of them, no matter where they’re from.

Watching the Olympics again this year, I have really come to appreciate the purity of sport, and suddenly the whole thing – life and sport, and sport and life – has lost the heavy weight of cultural identity I had hoisted on its shoulders for so long.  Suddenly, I can enjoy Ariarne Titmus’ 200m freestyle win as much as I enjoy Serbia’s waterpolo gold medal, no longer wondering what that means for my allegiance to either country or my sense of belonging in the world.  Suddenly I’m all countries at once and none at the same time, and I can stand back and enjoy the Olympics and other sports events for the wonderful, happy spectacles they’re meant to be.

And that, right there?  That’s a feeling I can really cheer for.

© Dunja Kaczmarek, 2021