Cultural Comment Sport

The UnStrayan Australian Olympic Hero / AntiHero – Dale Begg Smith

It’s always interesting to see how sport journalists in Australia cover the Winter Olympics – we can expect plenty of patronising comments about Australian athletes “punching above their weight” as well as faintly clueless comments about overseas athletes who are champions of their various disciplines. And let’s not forget reports on “plucky little Tonga” and the like.  One of the more recent repeating themes is the Un – Strayan Dale Begg Smith, internet millionaire and mogul skier.  An example of this has come to us from the head sport writer for the Herald, Andrew Webster – a journalist best known for his rugby league pieces. Here it is.

Dale Begg-Smith, our international man of mystery?

Should Dale Begg-Smith win gold in the men’s moguls, will the nation back home stand in its slippers on Tuesday morning, with a lump in its throat as the national anthem plays and the Australian flag is raised?
Begg-Smith is Canadian-born. He lives in the Cayman Islands. He has visited Sydney twice in the last two years. He’s an international man of mystery, although he’s more Ocean’s Eleven than Austin Powers.
The article starts as it finishes – as a piece about “us” as Australian sport fans, desiring a “typical Aussie hero” story to be part of our athletes’ background. So, this isn’t going to be about sport, it’s about defining what is “Australian” and what is not.  He then moves to a weird reference to Ocean’s Eleven – a film about a group of criminals robbing from a casino. What exactly is Webster saying here about Begg – Smith?

But he’s our international man of mystery. Or is he?


Intelligent. Outrageously talented. Private. Enigmatic. Mysterious. Aloof. These are some of the many words attached to Australia’s most successful Winter Olympian, and they still don’t come close to solving the riddle of Dale Begg-Smith.


It is why there’s every chance you won’t have a lump in your throat should he add gold in Sochi to the gold he won in Turin in 2006 and silver claimed in Vancouver in 2010.

He’s apparently a riddle to all of “us” – more specifically, to journalists. To be solved, clearly, by our journalistic sleuths like Webster. Personally, Begg Smith isn’t a riddle to me. He’s an independently wealthy sportsman who likes to compete, not engage with the media.

After initially giving the media the slip at Sochi airport last week (although this was later explained as the fault of officials, not the man himself) the 29-year-old was specifically asked if he considered himself Australian.


“I view myself as Australian but I live in different areas and move around without trying to get locked down to one place,” he said.


But no matter how far, or how wide, Dale Begg-Smith roams, he still calls Grand Cayman Island in the Carribean home.


I imagine this fact is here to build the case that living overseas makes you less Strayan and therefore you get a less lump in your throatiness quotient.   Not mentioned is the fact many Australian sportspeople live overseas – Adam Scott, Greg Norman, Mark Webber to start with. Torah Bright is another. In terms of the Mormon who has lived overseas since the age of 15, Webster didn’t mention the fact she lives overseas in this touching and supportive piece about her.  Clearly in Webster’s world, you are a good overseas Australian, or a bad one. It is probably because Bright doesn’t mind a chat with journos.  Begg Smith also has another black mark against his name – how he makes his money.

Begg-Smith and his brother Jason came to Australia in 2000 when he was 16, not because of an abiding passion for the great southern land, but because the smaller ski program allowed them to concentrate on their lucrative internet business.


Not only has it made them rich, it has attracted unwanted publicity.


On the eve of Begg-Smith’s gold medal-winning performance at the 2006 games, Fairfax Media revealed his two main companies, called AdsCPM and CPM Media, were associated with spam, pop-up/under ads, spyware and adware.


We can see how the Strayan quotient needs to be built. You need to be born here and not own businesses that don’t do things like annoy us.  And in Webster’s logic, it’s better to be a Mormon, with their various questionable beliefs and activities, rather than make money on the internet.

How Begg-Smith makes his money then and makes it now is his business.


But when he’s representing the mogul-loving people of Australia, they have a right to question whether he is one of us.


Our Dale, so to speak. Aussie Dale. Given how much grief we’ve given England over selecting South African-born Kevin Pietersen in its cricket team, we have to make sure he’s the real deal.


Who is “us” and “we”?  Because a subsection of the population made inane references to Kevin Pietersen not being from England during the Ashes, then that justifies not being behind Begg Smith for coming from Canada. I wonder if Webster feels the same about Fawad Ahmed, for example.  As for the “mogul loving people” of Australia – it is probably pretty certain that journalists like Webster had not even heard of moguls before Begg Smith started being successful at it.  Indeed, Begg-Smith has made moguls more popular and well known around Australia due to his success.  That’s not important to Webster, because Begg-Smith is not fulfilling his criteria of being one of “us”. But let’s go on, with Webster showing himself to be a journalist with a healthy sense of entitlement.

Those at the Olympic Winter Institute of Australia are said to be overly conscious about shielding the intensely private Begg-Smith from the spotlight.


His decision to come out of a three-year hiatus to compete in Sochi wasn’t shouted to the heavens, but included in the last paragraph of a press release on the institute’s website.


OWIA boss Geoff Lipshut did not want to talk to Fairfax Media about Begg-Smith. Requests to speak to Begg-Smith and his long-serving coach, Steve Desovich, also led to a dead end.


It’s clear here that in Webster’s view that every sportsperson must give access to journalists, even if they are intensely private and need space in order to prepare for an Olympic Games.  In other words, the story is more important than the sport.  It is from here where Webster’s full level of snark is employed.

It was left to chef de mission Ian Chesterman to answer some questions about our greatest winter athlete that few outside of the Australian team barely know.


“Superior intellect, superior sporting ability, and great business acumen,” is how Chesterman describes him.


Sounds like he ticks every box.

“Few outside the Australian team barely know” is now one of the UnStrayan crimes according to Webster – and then we see the last comment, dripping with sarcasm.

“But he doesn’t tick the box of playing the media game,” Chesterman said. “Is that a crime?”


Well, no, but if he’s part of a taxpayer-funded system, a few words here and there would not hurt.


Chesterman’s comment is spot on here – and Webster’s response speaks volumes for the journo cry “but we pay for all this – we demand to have access!”.  It sounds a bit like Chris Kenny and his #theirabc mutterers thinking that taxpayer money gives them the right to say whatever they like about the ABC.  We have seen the mutual benefit of what access to our sporting system has provided Begg – Smith and Australia – the type of success that much of our sport funding does not bring. One could hardly claim that taxpayer funding has not brought the desired results – but that’s not enough for a journo demanding access because taxpayer. Chesterman goes onto make his sensible point:

“I accept him for what he is,” Chesterman continues. “Sometimes people have forgotten that he’s been in the Australian system since he was 15 years of age. Why does Australia take great pride out of his performances? He’s been in our system since he was 15. Dale was always an exceptional talent, but he’s been developed and nurtured through our systems. We’ve got every right to be proud of him. Even the most talented 15-year-old doesn’t become an Olympic gold and silver medallist without the support around him.”


But because he doesn’t want to talk to Andrew Webster or other journalists, then he’s a bad unStrayan, according to the Webster thesis.  We do see some positive comments then about Begg – Smith –

According to those within the Australian team, Begg-Smith is a ripper.


Dry-witted, engaging company, pleasant to be around. He is quick to dispense advice to emerging mogul skiers, and other young athletes in the team.


He might be worth millions, but he’s always downplayed his wealth and flies economy class, not business.


You will also hear more than one person describe him as a “pure” athlete.


In other words, he’s competing for no other reason than the joy of competing, because he’s so abundantly wealthy from his business interests that nothing else drives him.


“He’s the purest athlete I’ve ever seen,” oozes Chesterman. “All he wants to do is produce the perfect run for himself. That’s his sole motivation. He doesn’t seek media attention. He doesn’t seek sponsorship support. All he wants to do is be a pure athlete, in the purest form of sport, and put down a clean run. That’s what makes him an enigma to everyone else, because they don’t know how to deal with this person. He doesn’t seek fame, which are so often the cues for so many athletes.”


A sportsperson who competes just for the sake of success in that field. A friendly person to be around for his teammates. Helpful to other teammates. Sounds like a good athlete to me. I’d rather see someone like Begg – Smith competing for Australia than a self – aggrandiser like Shane Watson – but that is not a convenient answer for Webster, who shows his disdain for Chesterman with the verb “oozes”, again, dripping with sarcasm.  It also didn’t change his conclusion.

Dale Begg-Smith competes for himself. We may never know if he’s competing for us, too.

If I was Begg – Smith, I wouldn’t care if Andrew Webster had lumps developing in his throat about me.  Nor would I care about the opinions of folksy populists like Peter FitzSimons wrote – like in this piece from 2010, where he said that Begg – Smith didn’t show enough emotion when he won silver, as well as committing the crime of offering monosyllabic answers to journalists.

No, it is probably because his whole schtick all seems so ruthlessly joyless. He is infamous for offering monosyllabic answers to journalists. And even in victory, or near victory, he offers nothing. To see him on the podium, between a wildly celebrating American and Canadian, while he looked like he had just sucked on a lemon, was to cringe. All of it might be forgivable if there was the slightest sense he has more than a walnut’s worth of feeling for his adopted country.


I am, you are, he says he is, Australian. And of course he has had an Australian passport for six years, since earlier falling out with his native Canadian team – though he still lives in Vancouver. But in all those monosyllabic grunts, it has been hard to ignore gaining the feeling that he couldn’t give a flying fig for Australia, and is simply flying a flag of convenience. If he doesn’t care for us, why should we care for him? I don’t.


I’ve always been a fan of Begg – Smith, the quiet, unassuming, skilled mogul skier who doesn’t want to help journalists fill their columns with meaningless air. The man who competes because he likes the discipline. I’m also looking forward to accessing journalism about the Winter Olympics from journalists who want to write about the sports, not parade repetitive flag waving jingoism.