Personal Score: Sport, Culture, Identity

Ellen van Neerven

Personal Score: Sport, Culture, Identity
University of Queensland Press
2 May 2023

Personal Score: Sport, Culture, Identity

Ellen van Neerven

Winner of the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Nonfiction 2024

Ellen van Neerven's first work of nonfiction, Personal Score, is a ground-breaking look at sport on this continent from a First Nations and queer perspective.

Sport is such a big part of ‘Australian’ life and identity but one that is rarely unpacked or questioned. With the incredible upsurge in the popularity of women’s sport comes the potential to reshape the narratives around sport and culture. As Personal Score examines, many athletes challenge mainstream views of gender and sexuality, and use sport and their role within it to effect change not only in their own sporting realm, but more broadly in the wider culture and society.

Moreover, van Neerven interrogates the implications of playing sport on stolen land and how this complicates questions of identity around sport, who plays it and where. Thus, Personal Score is also a meditation on Indigenous connections to place and land, examining the earliest sports played here, and paying tribute to influential First Nations sportspeople.


This extraordinary blend of cultural studies, memoir and poetry explores a broad spectrum of subjects centred around sport and identity. With their first book of nonfiction, award-winning writer Ellen van Neerven casts a wide net over subjects as varied as the history of First Nations sports, health outcomes, desire, gender, equal pay, sovereignty, climate catastrophe and more. Threaded throughout is van Neerven’s own personal history and relationship with the sport of soccer: how the game served as a conduit for their personal expression when they were a young player on Turrbal and Jagera land, and how that love was complicated by their experiences growing up as a queer, First Nations person.

I’ve always treasured great writing about sport; there’s something so hard about using words to capture wordless action. When it’s done well, it feels like magic. It would be easy to laud Personal Score for being a triumphant example of this form, with writing that lives up to the beauty of the Beautiful Game’. Van Neerven’s prose is intimate and alive, their sentences arc like a fluid pass, linking complex insights with biographical reflections. Except, as van Neerven also reminds us, ‘This is not a beautifully written book about decolonising Australian sport. This is an ugly book that was born of the ugly language I grew up hearing in this country.’

Personal Score may dazzle on the pitch, but its power lies in how it dismantles a logic and lexicon of violence – ‘beat’, ‘flog’, ‘smash’ – in order to write Indigeneity back into sport’s every aspect, from reminders of how our sportsgrounds were built on sacred sites to how current attacks on trans and gender diverse people’s participation in sports are rooted in the vicious binaries of the colonial gender project.

As the world prepares for the Women’s World Cup later this year, this book is an eloquent statement and a reminder that whatever is written about sport on these lands should be built on the recognition of what came before and still survives. As van Neerven writes, ‘As First Nations people from Australia are the oldest surviving living culture in the world, we are also the oldest living sporting culture and the oldest sportspeople in the world.’

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