* Disclaimer – the numbers relating to Olympic medals were correct at the time of publishing! I know Aussies will get an individual sailing gold, but there’s so much going on, I can’t keep up!
Even as you read this, there’s probably some women’s handball final between two Nordic countries while an Asian and Arabic country battle it out in mixed double’s badminton. I’m in the ballpark; let’s settle for that … as always.
How do we as a country define ourselves?
As I write, Australia sits on 1 gold medal. Total.
We are in 20th place overall. Today as I was munching my lunch, I was noting the medal tally, checking out the countries that I expected to be above us – USA, GB, China etc, and smiling sheepishly at countries like Kazakhstan who have pulled a few gold themselves, far more than we have.
My chewing simultaneously ceased upon seeing who sat in 19th place, one spot ahead of us.
Ok, this is getting out of hand!
My year without sport has brought forth a definitive tension as the Olympics unfold between (a) ‘Getting a grip’ regarding our poor medal display and not bagging the athletes who have more talent and skill in their left thumb than we do in our entire bodies, and (b) Unpacking an effort so far in which we have undoubtedly underperformed.
However, I think the Ethiopia defeat has tipped me over the edge…
As a country, so much of our national identity emanates from the sporting fields. No more is this on show that every four years under the biggest and brightest spotlight of them all*, the Olympic Games. (* Except the World Cup. Sorry, it’s not even close…)
Every four years brings about an opportune global event where we can stand next to incredible athletes from around the world – powerhouse countries like the USA, China, and hold our own, particularly in arenas such as swimming and rowing. We love it than we garner worldwide respect in claiming so many golds ‘from a country of only 20 million people’.
Well, those days of being 20 million are long gone. And so are the golds, apparently. We are no longer the cutesy country that other nations are happy to see achieve glory. We’ve been targeted in swimming by USA and rowing by GB by professional and semi-professional programs that have seen many, many other countries catch up, gets their heads in front, and in 2012, power away from us…
Perspective from an Olympian
Still wrestling with this tension, I decided to pick the brain of a friend, Whaddon Niewoudt, who raced for South Africa at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. He also hit Olympic qualifying times for both the Atlanta and Sydney Games (in the 5000m, but that’s another story).
The 3000m steeplechase is a torturous event, one not seemingly designed for one of the nicest and most humble men on the planet. But don’t be deceived, he is an unbelievable competitor, to the point where he was one of the few to forego a sports psychologist; par for the course for most elite athletes. ‘You should want it enough without needing a sports psych to motivate you.’ No wonder our tennis head-to-head stands at 217-0. Well, that, and his Olympic-level skills vs someone who seriously injured both index fingers last year (a) putting away a clothes airer and (b) putting my shoes on. I really really wish I was making those up.
What follows are excerpts and summaries from an interview I conducted with the great man on August 6th. The Olympian gets the italics.
Is the criticism directed at the Australian team justified? The Australian Olympic Committee’s pre-event goal was 5th overall! We had the worst swimming haul since ’92. Only 15 out of the 36 swimmers improved their performance from the Australian trials. We had a world no. 2 not even make a final! Surely this is not all hot air from an overbearing and insatiable media.
On the day I believe that every athlete has performed at their very best. This however does not excuse the fact that there does seem to be elements in certain athletes’ build up that have led to under achievement. To clarify this a bit I don’t think it is the preparation/ training that has been the problem, I think it is probably factors like attitude, mental preparation and outside influences. These things can make a few percent difference to one’s performance which can be the difference between Gold and Silver.
Hmmm, it’s easy to feel sympathy for these athletes when they’ve finished their event and, exhausted, say that ‘they’ve done their best.’ In the preceding few minutes, I don’t doubt that, but overall, sorry, but the numbers don’t lie. Their focus and ability to shut down the distractions and not succumb to the pressure all caved in. It looks like swimming and rowing legends Susie O’Neill and Drew Ginn were spot on in questioning the team’s work ethic.
What about PBs??
You may not have noticed, but after the first few days of competition, the commentators started to reference individual athlete’s personal best times more frequently. I felt this was spot on. We can’t expect every Aussie to nail a gold.
Are personal bests what we should look at when judging the merit of athletic performance?
This is definitely a major factor. Watching the women’s marathon showed what a wonderful race Lisa Weightman ran when she did her personal best time. She finished 17th and probably never stood a chance of winning a medal. I think we have to remember that these are the best athletes in the world and not everyone can be a medal winner. She achieved the qualifying standard for the Olympics and therefore deserved to race against the best athletes in the world.
On the flip side we should also be mindful that in some events tactics can play a major role in the outcome. A personal best might not even be in contention in this kind of situation. Take Bradley Wiggins for example, he had just won the Tour De France and seemed to be the absolute complete all-round cyclist. Due to tactics he didn’t even really feature by his standards or the world’s expectations.
Ok, very interesting take here. It’s softened me up a bit, particularly when considering the tactical elements. I love the example of Weightman hitting a PB in the marathon, in atrocious conditions, btw. As for the Brit Wiggins, well, he blamed the Aussies, so stuff him…!
What about you? How did you shut it all out??
To be honest I don’t think I did avoid falling under the pressure of the Olympics. I believe that I underperformed at the Olympics and was bitterly disappointed. I should have at least made the final. I got caught up in the hype of South Africa’s first Olympic team back after many years of isolation and all the euphoria that went with it. I ran close to my PB in the 1st round and didn’t improve on it in the semis. I was guilty of ‘not keeping my eyes on the ball’.
It’s a brutal environment when you only get one shot at glory. You only get one shot every four years, and well, in this runner’s case, there were extenuating, political circumstances that kept him out of two subsequent Games. They want it more than we do, let’s not forget that. See, Emotional breakdown, Jamaican hurdler Foster-Hylton, women’s hurdles…
There have been some amazing insights from ex- and current Olympians into the party, sex-fuelled atmosphere in the Games’ village. Can this, combined with the apparent obsessions with social media – twitter, facebook etc – be preventing athletes from performing at their optimum??
These are the outside influences that I spoke of above. It is something that I feel very strongly about. I think a number of athletes have been affected by this. At this level the athletes have to remain 100% focused. As much as some athletes might not think these kind of things affects their performance for the most part I believe they do. Like many things, the social media in moderation can have an extremely positive effect.
Athletes like Emily Seebohm (hehe) have lamented their connectivity to social media, while others such as Alicia Coutts have been lauded for keeping their heads down and simply doing their job well. Is this a chicken or the egg situation? I doubt it. It’s such a fine line between success and glory. The little things – twitter and the bigger ones – the rampant promiscuity of the athletes – all add up to affect an athlete’s performance.
So, are we Aussies just being too harsh?!
Are Australians being overly harsh in their assessments and do we need to simply shut up and enjoy the golds when they come?
Yes, taking a look at the big picture we have been too critical of the team’s performance. It is human nature to keep on wanting to improve on previous performances, we know this is impossible. I think that if every country banked on the amount of gold medals they thought they could win there would have to be over 500 medals up for grabs where there are only 302 gold medals awarded at the London Olympics.
It’s almost a share market analogy. Not every country can keep building on the previous Games. Our expectations have changed. Think of the World Cup soccer and our disappointing performance in the 2010 event – 1 win, 1 loss, 1 draw … which was the identical result to the overwhelming success in the 2006 World Cup…*
(* Where we were only robbed a quarter final berth by a cheating, crying, diving Italian and a referee who has too unfit to contemplate overseeing a game that went into extra time. For the record, I have zero recall of the body shape of a referee in a soccer game that was played 6 years ago. But believe me, the bitterness is as strong as ever. What, you couldn’t tell!?)
Every sports fan will remember where they were when Australia won an epic game on penalties against Uruguay in 2006, catapulting us into the World Cup.
Do you have any idea how we won our way into the 2010 event?
No, me neither. It doesn’t matter. Qualifying is now expected; demanded. We must build on the success.
We have placed sport in a vacuum where we look to suck every last ounce and opportunity for glory from it. And if we don’t, well so help us. So many Australians look to gain from sport more than it was ever intended for. Mark Sayers in ‘The Road Trip That Changed The World’ writes that these types of activities that were designed for happiness and fun have become swollen, pressurised beyond their limits.
And it’s response to that that competitors like our silver medal winning long jumper tell critics to go take a running jump themselves.
I have always believed, and still do, that Australian athletes have the X-factor when it comes to competitiveness.
So there’s always hope…
Ok, enough already. I need to refresh that medal count and see where Ethiopia is…!