The Rio Olympics are done and dusted and we look now to reviewing and assessing both tangible results and emotional outcomes of what has been a big campaign for over 400 Australian athletes.
There is no doubt these Games will go down in the Olympic annals with some successes to promote but mostly as having lessons to be learned for the IOC moving forward - there is little doubt it will not be given the acclaim of “best Olympics ever” – not even close as far as an organised international event is concerned – fraught with major issues around logistics, health and security.
But for the countries and their athletes involved, success or failure is assessed on performance.
But how is that success assessed? How is success defined?
Success for the athletes who arrived under the refugee banner was achieved as soon as they walked into the arena in the Opening Ceremony. The first woman to compete for her nation or the first medal to ever be won for a country – as was the case with Fiji and its Men’s Rugby Sevens team – or the athlete who smashes a national record even if that record is not close to what is required to be in medal contention - all these are perceived universally as successes.
But for a country like Australia which prides itself on sporting excellence on the world stage, success is now rated by world rankings, trophies won and, in the case of the Olympics, medals accumulated.
It is not just about bragging rights but in this modern commercial era, it is about dollars and return for investment.
So how do you balance the two elements of assessing success?
The conversation, which quickly evolves into heated debate in the aftermath of an Olympic campaign, has started to emerge about Australia’s lack of success in those arenas of sport where success, as a nation, is almost taken for granted.
There is no doubt Australia has not achieved as expected in many of the team sports in which it excels on the world stage or in the swimming pool where it has created a history well paved with gold, world records and a dominance that belies our size. There have been inexplicable underperformances by teams and athletes of which expectation was unreasonably high and reviews will definitely need to happen. But should this discussion dominate all discussions in reviewing this Olympic campaign?
Sport is a business – we all now know and accept this in the modern era – but the Olympics is a strange platform on which the two faces of sport confront each other. The achievement for many, if not all, is to simply be selected to represent their country in their sport at an Olympic Games and forever be an Olympian.
This is the generation which, as children, watched Cathy Freeman realise her dream in 2000 and nurtured the hopes of following in her footsteps – such is the ability of sport and athletes to leave a legacy in their wake.
So the debate prevails – is success about being an Olympian or is it about being an Olympic medalist? Does one eliminate the other from contention because it is the ultimate goal or should the conversation be about the first being the initial and necessary part of achieving the second but is in itself no less a success?
Success in sport is indisputable if you have achieved a gold medal
If you have won a Silver or a Bronze medal, there is no doubt you too have succeeded in your sport at the top level – although you were not THE best on the day.
But therefore do you feel you have failed if you go to an Olympics, especially if you go to more than one, but never attain a place on the podium?
You are an Olympian – but not a medal winner
All of the athletes I have spoken to this year for Zela have spoken to me about their dreams of being an ‘Olympian’. Although I have no doubt that winning a medal is a given in terms of desired goals – the selection is the achievement for many, if not all of them, of which they boast excitedly. The opportunity to be part of an experience where the world’s best athletes across many different sports, from many different cultures and backgrounds, come together and interact with, learn from and support each other is seen as a rare life experience to be treasured.
Now, the ultimate goal of going to an Olympics, for most is to win a medal – but not all.
There are those athletes for whom selection is the goal and the ultimate achievement – presenting them the opportunity to perform on the biggest sporting stage there is and to do so alongside those who are the best in that sport.
Australia selects and sends athletes to the Olympics who are perhaps in the top 20 in the world in their sport and who, realistically, are not expected to get anywhere near the medal podium – so why do we send them if the review of performance and the determination of success is based around gold medals won and money spent in relation to that?
Olympic selection and the opportunity to perform on that stage once every four years is success for most with the winning of a medal as the icing on the cake.
It is also about expectation
Fulfilled expectation produces confidence in the existing programs and it reinforces the belief that Australians do excel on the sporting stage.
When the difference between first and fourth is one one-hundredth of a second, has an athlete failed in coming fourth and coming home empty handed? Or is that just about the contest because ultimately that is what sport is at this level – it is an elite contest.
For a country of 24 million people which repeatedly boasts excellence on the world’s sporting stage, have the expectations to excel been given too much weight?
Medal tallies defy mathematical logic
The obsession with medal tallies becomes an interesting reflection of expectation and the definition of success.
When a table is formulated which has three category columns with a final totals column, it is a bemusing observation (especially to those involved in research and statistics) that the gauge for success is neither based on, nor highlighted by, the final column but on just one of the contributing columns: the Gold medal column becomes the numbers on which the final ranking, and therefore the perception of success, is assessed in the Olympic competition – such is the obsession with winning.
For an assessment to be done that says a country which has claimed first prize more often than another, even if that other country has claimed the top three spots overall many more times, seems to be a skewed vision of the success of a national sports program and a country’s overall performance.
Supporting the achievement, not necessarily the result
We say well done to our athletes who perform and give it their all: a diver who makes the final but is not within a shot of surpassing Chinese divers who score 9.5 and 10 in that final; the weightlifter who knows she is 50kg behind the world’s best with her best lift but is both grateful and pushed to improve by simply participating in her first Olympic competition with a goal to achieve a top ten placement; to have a runner make the final of a distance race for the first time in 40 years is acclaimed and while a top three finish is hoped for, it is not expected. These are examples of the performances we applaud during competition but which seem to fall away as elements of a rational discussion about value for invested money in sports and achieved or failed expectations based on tangible returns.
There is no doubt that in the sports Australians are acclaimed for – especially team sports at which it excels - there has been disappointment. Questions will be asked and strategies will be revisited by individual organisations with answers required by the AOC. But the weight and passion with which this debate unfolds around unfulfilled expectations (ie: results and medals) needs to maintain a level of perspective.
Let’s also not forget the argument of proportionality. Australia is a nation of just 24 million people and is competing on the world sporting stage – more often than not at the top level – with countries that have ten times that number from which to nurture sporting excellence.
There is no doubt there has been disappointment from the XXXIst Olympiad for Australia but perhaps hair pulling, teeth gnashing and the flailing of hands at the top level of sport administration – let alone in the media - should be kept to a minimum and a rational discussion around what form success takes is dependent on a definition in two parts.
Hard questions need to be asked of specific sports but as an overall assessment is it fair to highlight the underperformance of a few and ultimately overshadow the efforts of the many?
A new sport was introduced at which Australia both excelled and underperformed but for which the overall benefits will be felt well into the next generation.
As a nation, Australia loves its sport and excels perhaps beyond what it should on the world stage. The unfortunate outcome of consistently excelling is that expectation becomes a part of the national psyche – and Australians do not deal well with failing on the fields of sport.
It would be good to think that perspective around what defines success in the ensuing discussions is rational, balanced and broad and that the positives out of this most recent Olympic campaign will be considered equally with the perceived negatives, and the obvious soul searching for some sports, in looking to the future.