On a fairly lacklustre Games to date for the Australian Olympic team, Anthony Tan wonders, are we underfunded and under-resourced and therefore underperforming – or are the media and fans overly critical and unrealistic?
If this year’s Olympics has taught us anything it is that bearing the moniker of world champion is no means a gold medal guarantee.
Late Sunday afternoon, after boldly declaring my unrequited love for women’s Olympic road race gold medallist Marianne Vos on Cycling Central TV, I went over to my parents’ house for a roast dinner and a reality check.
Before the evening meal I flicked through the weekend papers, and in one of the Sunday Telegraph’s lift-outs, couldn’t help but notice a full-page advertisement, spruiking the sale of a signed Australian flag.
“Australian Olympic Glory… Australian Olympic Team flag signed by all Australian Gold Medalists…
“Limited to 112 editions worldwide, this is a product that will be treasured by Australian sporting fans and astute collectors alike.
“$2995 plus $65 delivery.”
Apart from the rather offensive price tag – more than a complete Dura-Ace Di2 group – and the US-spelling of ‘medalist’ – the problem was that as of Monday morning, Australia had slipped to 24th place on the medal tally and had just one gold medal to its name.
At least the gold medal was in the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay, so if the 30th Olympiad were to have ended last weekend, that flag would’ve contained four signatures, rather than one. (Maybe they could include the names of the coaches and support staff, to fill up the white space. Just a thought.)
I’d very much like to know how many pre-orders the vendor, Official Memorabilia, has received thus far. Hazarding a guess, I’d say somewhere between zero and five.
Later that evening, Cate Campbell, one of the members of the gold-medal winning relay team, told reporters: “It’s not that we haven’t been performing, it’s just that the world has stepped up.”
Nevertheless, the conspicuous absence of gold medals naturally raises questions and reignites the debate into funding elite level sport. Currently, $170 million of taxpayer dollars goes to the 37 sports at the Australian Institute of Sport, which Ric Charlesworth, coach of the Kookaburras, the men’s hockey team, claims is less than the budget of the Adelaide Football Club.
But is it a question of funding, when New Zealand, our antipodean neighbours, with three gold medals, is ranked in the mid-teens on the medal tally, and out of 210 competing nations, boast the highest per capita medal count?
Former swimmer Susie O’Neill, a two-time gold medallist who holds the Australian women’s record for the most Olympic medals, will form part of an independent review into our performances from the pool following the Games. She recently said: “What I’ve been hearing... is the work ethic from Australian swimmers is maybe not the same as it used to be 10 years ago. Talent gets you this far in an Olympics; work ethic gets you across the line. It’s one part talent, four parts work ethic.”
As I posited in my last column, ‘A question of selection’, some responsibility must be borne on the athletes and selectors, rather than extoll the familiar line from the president of the Australian Olympic Committee, John Coates, who says the government (and by consequence, the taxpayer) must give more to get more.
It could be argued, for example, that by making Glenn O’Shea ride all three rounds of the team pursuit left his legs wanting in the omnium, where he entered as world champion and led the six-race event after four races, only to finish fifth after a less than par result in the scratch race, the penultimate round. “Tactically, I don’t think I did much wrong, but sometimes my legs weren’t there,” he said afterwards.
In the 15km scratch race, over 60 laps, nine riders stole a lap on the field, and both O’Shea and Ed Clancy, a key member of Great Britain’s gold medal – and world record-breaking – team pursuit posse, missed the move, or perhaps more accurately, could not go with it. However Clancy did win the final round, the kilometre time trial, to take home bronze and O’Shea rode a PB to move up a notch from sixth to fifth.
Granted, O’Shea won the world title and took silver in the team pursuit at this year’s worlds in Melbourne. But if this year’s Olympics has taught us anything it is that the quadrennial event is at a completely different level, and bearing the moniker of world champion is by no means a gold medal guarantee.
Coates also believed a lack of compulsory sport in schools has precipitated the underwhelming medal tally in London. “Perhaps the area that needs a lot of attention… and government intention in terms of policy is getting sport back into the school curricula,” he told the Associated Press.
“The British are making a big thing of that being one of the legacies they’re looking towards and they’ve been achieving that, a greater emphasis on sport in schools. We need that because we've got to make sure we have a talent pool.”
Matt Favier, director of the AIS, told the ABC’s ‘7.30’ program last night: “I think that where Australia was once, a very strong and we used to see cutting edge and ahead of the curve. I believe that we’re no longer in the same zone and we need to make changes accordingly.
“We have to accept that around the world things are different. It’s more competitive now than it’s ever been. Other nations are investing in a way that we’ve not seen before. I would go so far as to say that we now could look to other nations, including the UK, but not just the UK, for ideas about how we might make some of those decisions.”
The thing is, though, in terms of funding and R&D, Australia cannot match the investment of Great Britain. We have no moneyed benefactor like the national lottery or Sky. Consequently, a number of our best coaches and support staff will continue to leave because opportunities – career and financial – will be better elsewhere, including the UK. Many of those who stay eschew the rationalist in them due to an overwhelming sense of patriotism.
There is also another side to all of this. Are we – both the public and media – simply expecting too much, asking our athletes to compete – and invariably beat – nations more cashed up and more populous than ourselves?
“The team is happy, I’m happy, the head coach is happy; I’ve got thousands of messages from back home that are happy and the only people that aren’t happy are you guys,” silver medal-winning long jumper Mitchell Watt said in a press conference Sunday night.
“You (the media) need to wake up.”
24th-best out of 210 countries ain’t so bad, is it?
Or is it, especially when chef de mission Nick Green predicted a top-five medal finish for the Australian team on the eve of the Games?
Whatever the case, in track cycling at least, a not insignificant rebuild will be required before Rio 2016.
A number of members will be turning their attention to the road after these Games, such as three of the five members of the men’s team pursuit squad. One or two, like Anna Meares, may be contemplating retirement. And others simply won’t be competitive four years from now and, try as they might, will miss the cut.
With six days of competition to go our fortunes could, with the aid of a series of minor miracles, change for the better. But with today marking the final night of competition at the London velodrome, as far as Australia is concerned, don’t expect seismic shifts on two wheels.