If it’s not gold, it’s not good
In Sydney, Athens and Beijing, Australia won 16, 17 and 14 gold medals respectively. It is naive to believe that anything less would not be strongly scrutinised by Australian journalists, writes James Pennington.
Americans and Britons, who once marvelled at the Down Under prowess in sports, are taunting Australians in London; “Hey Aussie, when are you going to win a medal?” an American sports writer called to an Australian in a team jacket across the patio of the Olympic Village. The Australian did not reply.
The Australians in the team jacket, it appears, are not amused. It reads like a report from London during the 2012 Games. But the above anecdote appeared in the Daily Telegraph on July 26 1976, during the Montreal Olympics where Australia won no gold medals, one silver and just four bronze medals to finish 32ndon the medal tally – Australia’s worst performance at a post-war Games. Other reports from Montreal, including a Sun Herald exclusive that revealed female Australian swimmers were ‘sunk by a calorie count’ after eating too much ice cream in the Athletes’ Village, are eerily similar to coverage of Australia at the 2012 London Games.
The Australian media’s unforgiving coverage of anything less than world-beating performances at the Games is therefore nothing new. Newspapers play on the popularity of sport in this country and the fact that, for most of its history, Australia has punched above its weight in international competition, particularly at the Olympics.
Certainly, medal hauls at recent Games have heightened expectations, and with London claiming seven gold rather than the predicted 16, the media response was never going to be pretty:
“You must be disappointed missing out on the gold”, was the general introducing question asked to James Magnussen and Emily Seebohm following their silver medal performances in the pool.
But is the lampooning of the Australian Olympic team fair when many medals, albeit silver and bronze, are still being won in London? Australian athletes, Mitchell Watt and Cate Campbell, have spoken out against the media’s portrayal of the team’s effort.
Watt was asked whether he was satisfied with silver rather than a gold medal in the Long Jump, and made it clear his jubilant state was understood:
“The team’s happy, I’m happy, the coach is happy. I’ve got thousands of messages back home that they’re happy and the only people that aren’t happy are you guys.”
Campbell, a member of Australia’s victorious 4 x 100m freestyle relay swimming team, refuted claims that Australian swimmers’ work ethic was poorer than at previous Games:
“We go out there and we pour our heart and soul into every single performance and it’s not that we haven’t been performing, it’s just that the world has stepped up.”
While Australian athletes have long reaped the benefits of the Federal Government’s large-scale funding of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), founded in 1980 following the fallout from the Montreal Games, other nations have more recently started to boost their own sporting programs, with the results coming to fruition in London.
Great Britain and China are the most obvious examples: after winning the hosting rights in 2005, the British government devoted huge amounts of time and money into Olympic sports, with national lottery funding added to government spending to create a hugely professional sporting infrastructure.
China, meanwhile, has significantly increased its spending on coaching and performance analysis, bringing in talent from around the world to better its chances – with the work of highly-paid Australian swimming coaches partly to thank for its strong displays in the pool.
In an increasingly competitive international sports environment, it will take a sustained increase in elite sports funding for Australia to regain former glories in the medals tally, particularly gold.
In the meantime, as in Montreal 36 years ago and today in London, the taunts of other nations (real and imagined) will ring loud and clear from an unforgiving Australian press.
The Australian in the team jacket may have to endure a few more barbs yet.