New doco looks at Aussie sporting greats

We do a lot of things well in Australia, but sport is something we do very well. We compete well and we're not bad at cheering on the people who compete either.

The way the very smart, very funny John Clarke sees it, people from outside this great brown land of ours tend to view Australia as "a continuous producer of extremely fit, naturally gifted and very competitive sportspeople". A sporting nation, one might even say.

Funnily enough, that happens to be the title of Clarke's new three-part documentary series for the ABC.

In Sporting Nation, Clarke speaks with a dazzling array of sporting stars and informed individuals (including former prime ministers Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser) to provide the audience with some understanding of how Australia's relationship with sports of all types have helped shape the country into what it is today.

It's a marvellous piece of work, entertaining and informative, and it offers not only fascinating insights into the national culture of sport but also a unique and insightful glimpse into the psychology and philosophy of elite athletes.

"There are people I've interviewed for this who've done the things we're still talking about, and they're people I've admired since I was a kid," said Clarke, who wrote and presented the series.

"I watched Herb Elliott run in the Rome Olympics in 1960. On television, of course. I didn't have a very big travel budget at the time. But I saw these people do what they do - I've seen Dawn Fraser swim, I've seen Catherine Freeman run - and when I ask them about these things, I'm saying, 'I saw you and it was like this' and they'll tell me, 'I did it and it was actually like this'."

Even if you're not a die-hard sports fan, it's still incredible to hear from the likes of Elliott, an Olympic gold medallist and one of the greatest middle-distance runners in history, about what drove him to succeed.

It's inspiring to hear about tennis champ Margaret Court rising from humble beginnings to win Wimbledon three times.

And it's both moving and hilarious to hear AFL legend Robert DiPierdomenico admitting one of the greatest accolades in a career that included a Brownlow Medal and a number of grand final wins was receiving the Italian Sportsman of the Year award, for which he received a new suit and a bedspread (which his mum still uses).

Clarke says with Sporting Nation he was aiming to give viewers a look at the way Australia has developed in step with its sporting prowess.

"We were trying to look at both things simultaneously because quite a lot of Australia's history has to do with our sporting history," he said.

"Sport is a metaphor in a blindingly obvious way - life can be kind of messy, a bit of an indecisive shambles, and here comes this game or this event where things happen and it's all clear. Win or lose, yes or no, legal or illegal. There are rules, and it refreshes your mind in a way. Then you go back to the chaos of your own life."

* Sporting Nation airs on ABC1, Sundays at 7.30pm