We have heard plenty about the “disappointing” performance of Australian athletes at the London Olympics. From media outlets, at least. It has become such that silver medals are now not acceptable – to media outlets, at least. More specifically, Channel 9, whose entire coverage seems to be focused on Australia – to the exclusion of showing key races like the Men’s 1500m race live, simply because they don’t involve Aussie Heroes.
There needs, however, to be some perspective seen in the performance of the team. I grew up in a time when we as a nation were happy with 4 gold medals in Los Angeles. The Americans and Germans dominated the pool and the velodrome, rowing and equestrian was something mostly done in exclusive private schools. Then the Sydney Olympics happened. Suddenly, Government coffers were more open to funding sport training for the largely non-commercial sports (ie. not sport with weekly or seasonal spectator events like football, golf, cricket or baseball) one sees once every so often on our national screens. These sports that require professional training and living setups that develops sportspeople for the long term, such as swimming, rowing and cycling, reaped their reward for that cash spend in Sydney, with the ripple effect felt especially in swimming and cycling in the Athens Games in 2004, which saw more gold than in Sydney.
It is clear that in cycling and rowing especially, that Great Britain has been similarly committed in their targeting of sport funding towards the non commercial sport, with a considerable amount coming from the 18% of the “Good Works” component provided to sport funding from the National Lottery – which has translated to helping provide £264 million from 2009 to 2012. Australia’s rowers and cyclists don’t have that level of gambling fuelled largesse. No more the days of Ryan Bayley, the KFC Kid.
It also appears that in the case of swimming, Australia has come to back to the field to an extent, but only a small one. Instead of gold medals, there are silvers, which is no great calamity, but indicates that swimming has seen the return of American dominance and the rise of the Chinese swimming team. There is also the encouraging sign that, unlike in 1984, Australia are still achieving good team results, such as in the medley and freestyle relays – for women. Australia’s male swimmers appear to suffer from the American syndrome of talking themselves up before an event and giving themselves silly nicknames like “The Missile”, which causes problems for the Channel 9 coverage, which is one of the more suffocatingly masculine coverages for a while. Talking of female triumph – sorry, when the “girls” win, doesn’t seem to excite them as much as when men raise their fist in triumph.
When you take this all into account and you chart Australia’s Olympic performances between 1988 and 2008, you can see a big reliance on the swimming pool, cycling track and rowing lake for the medals that Australia’s athletes win
So, now that the USA, France, China and other nations have a range of swimming stars and the British have a National Lottery funded push towards rowing and cycling programs, we have this effect (though, there are chances for more medals before the end):
There will be many solutions discussed and provided by armchair experts and the media over the next few days and months. Already, Kevan Gosper is doing the predictable pan handling usually undertaken by John Coates, seeking more funding from governments. Coates seems to be playing a cooler political line, still pointing out that other nations outfund Australia.
The answer, however, is that there is no major problem. There seems to be a view that being lower on the medal tally is some kind of indicator of a flaccid national spirit that needs some of that erection medication that was continually advertised during Le Tour de France. More tent building by our rugged, virile Aussie Heroes. This tone can be discerned in the Daily Telegraph article relating to Coates and Gosper. The tone of Andrew Webster in saying Kate Lundy “gushed” about winning silver and quoting the human megaphone Laurie Lawrence in saying “anything but gold is not good enough” simply fuels resentment that should not be present in relation to athletic achievement. Australia is not in a sport crisis and these sports don’t need more money – being competitive and achieving any medal at the biggest sporting event of all is a great achievement by any rational person’s standards. What may need adjustment is the way it is all packaged and reported. We can listen to Mitchell Watt when he tells the media to wake up to itself. That won’t happen, but a person can dream that we as a nation can leave the tent building to the Americans.
Personally, I enjoy the Olympics for the events you would hardly see on Channel Nein (to steal Kimberley Ramplin’s name for them). Handball, volleyball, badminton and the like. It was incredible that the Australian “Volleyroos”, in only their third Olympic appearance, defeated Poland and challenged Italy and Bulgaria – all nations that treasure and develop the game to a larger extent than Australia. I am also awaiting with great anticipation the trip of Iceland towards Men’s Handball Gold. Iceland really only have one realistic medal chance at these Games – they won silver in 2008. Imagine if they had a Channel Nein there. They’d be a bit bereft of ways of interrupting the coverage of other nations winning events with banal interviews with their Icelandic Heroes.