What has happened to Australian sport?
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With the London 2012 Olympics finally upon us, it’s a pertinent time to analyse the current state of Australian sport.
I am predicting that Australia will win less than 10 gold medals in London. This would represent our worse result since Atlanta in 1996.
In terms of other sports, some Olympic and some not, our current performances are bringing into question the position sport holds in current Australian society.
Long known as a country that punches above its weight in sport, given its population, Australia is fast becoming just one of the pack.
For the purposes of this article, I have concentrated on those sports that are arguably part of our national psyche. Due to that criteria and the need to draw a line somewhere, I have decided to leave out sports such as boxing, motorsport and cycling.
I have focused on Australia’s current world ranking in a range of sports, along with our recent performances in world championships or similar.
At one stage basketball was going to take over the world. In the days of Michael Jordan, basketball enjoyed a rapid rise in Australia to the point where it was shown live on prime-time television and stadiums were regularly sold out.
The NBL is now a shadow of its former self and yet another team, Gold Coast Blaze, recently folded. The current Australian mens team is ranked ninth and the womens team second.
The men are not expected to challenge for a medal in London and the women should make the final, where they will again probably face the might of the USA.
Many people believe the captaincy of the Australian cricket team is the second-highest profile job in the country behind the Prime Minister. Indeed three previous captains – Border, Taylor and Waugh – have won Australian of the Year.
In 2012, the position of the national cricket side in our thoughts has never been lower. Many are disillusioned with the game, particularly older fans, who don’t understand the modern obsession with Twenty20.
The one-day side is ranked first, but recently lost a series 4-0 to England. The Test side is ranked second, yet the Test rankings are favoured to countries who play more games.
In Twenty20 we are ranked sixth. If this form is the future of the game, then clearly we have more work to do to become competitive.
Hard-core fans of golf have only just recovered from Adam Scott throwing away a four-shot lead in the recent British Open. However, it did highlight again the inability of an Australian golfer to win a big tournament.
The last major winner was Geoff Ogilvy in 2006 and before that it was Steve Elkington in 1995. In mens golf, we have four players in the top 50 (Scott, Day, Senden, Ogilvy) and eight in the top 100.
Carrie Webb is the only Australian woman in the top 50. Given the amount of land we have in this country, the number of golf courses, the participation rate of the game and the weather, our performances in golf internationally are only average at best.
Netball is the highest participation sport for women in Australia and the national side has enjoyed much success over the years. Australia is the current world champions, however the national competition was recently won by a New Zealand club side. It is concerning that our fiercest rival in netball is a country of only 4 million people.
After the Queensland Reds Super Rugby triumph of 2011, things were looking up for this code. Unfortunately, none of the five Australian teams could make the semi-finals of this year’s competition.
Australia made the semi finals of the 2011 World Cup, but the balance between international success and strong local-team performances still is not marrying up.
The NRL is acknowledged as the best rugby-league competition in the world and the annual State of Origin series presents the best three games played anywhere each year.
That said, the current world champions are New Zealand. The sport suffers from the fact that international competition isn’t strong – all the more reason for Australia to be supremely dominant.
The A-League is an improved competition and is now attracting some quality overseas players. Qualification for recent World Cups has lifted the profile of the game in Australia but the game comes well behind the other football codes in terms of attracting young talent.
Australia is ranked 23rd, which is very good given our population and participation rate compared with other soccer playing nations, of which there are many. Not securing the hosting rights to future World Cups has hurt the code in Australia – the fallout from which is yet to be fully understood.
The most disappointing sport in terms of recent performances has been tennis. Australia has a rich and enviable history in this sport, but currently we are barely a factor.
As a nation we are currently ranked 20th and therefore don’t even qualify for the world group of Davis Cup in the mens game.
The fact that the Australian Open is one of the four majors in tennis is ironic, considering no Australian man or woman has won their home tournament for over 35 years.
We have only one player in each of the top 50s for mens and womens tennis (Tomic and Stosur). Indeed most Australians would not have heard of our third-highest ranked male player – Marinko Matosevic.
The past three Olympics has seen Australia hold its own in terms of medals against some of the larger populated countries in the world. I predict the London Olympics will produce a post-Montreal (1976) enquiry into our performance, where we won only 5 medals in total and no gold.
Questions have already been raised regarding funding to some sports and selection criteria in others. Australia is predicted to finish seventh on the medal table. But even that looks a stretch.
In many ways sport has defined us as Australians over the years. Our ability to triumph over opposition that have every right to defeat us has made us the envy of many a country.
But times are changing.
Sport, it seems, just doesn’t mean as much to the average Australian as it used to. Maybe there is too much coverage of it now and we are bored. Maybe sport is too corporate now and people feel they can’t relate to it. Whatever it is we need to get out juices flowing again.
Let’s hope the London Olympics can re-invigorate something in all of us.
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