Two silvers and two different emotions for Australia
On day 5 of the London Olympics Australia won three silver medals – one at the rowing and two in the pool.
For the purpose of this exercise, we will concentrate on the two silvers won in the pool, as they evoked entirely different emotions among Aussie sports fans.
Let’s look firstly at the women’s 4 x 200 freestyle relay. The Aussie girls swam as good a race as they could. They started with arguably their two fastest 200m freestylers – Bronte Barratt and Melanie Schlanger.
The game plan was simple – build up as much of a lead as possible, then hopefully their best racer (as opposed to fastest swimmer) and last leg – Alicia Coutts – might be able to hold off the American individual 200m freestyle gold medal champion Allison Schmitt.
Even the 3rd leg swimmer Kylie Palmer played her part, giving Coutts about a body length at the last changeover, and Coutts herself played her part as well, holding the champion American for the first 100m of the last leg.
Up to this point the Aussies had done everything right. Except for one thing – they were blown away by the best 200m freestyle swimmer at this meet.
All you can do is your very best, and be beaten only by someone better. This is what the Aussie girls did, they swam to their absolute best and pushed the Americans as far as they could, but eventually they succumbed to a superior team.
A huge well done to Bronte Barratt, Melanie Schlanger, Kylie Palmer and Alicia Coutts. Hugely gutsy performance.
Now let’s look at the other silver – won by James Magnussen in the men’s 100m freestyle final. This was an opportunity lost. A gold medal literally thrown away.
Magnussen was the current world champion and the fastest 100m swimmer in 2012. He didn’t need the media to build him up, he did it himself. He was going to win two gold medals, and don’t you worry about that, as former Qld premier Joh-Bjelke Petersen was fond of saying.
Magnussen built up the unrealistic expectations of the nation. He talked and sounded bullet-proof. What we didn’t know was that Magnussen had placed enormous, ultimately unbearable pressure on himself, as the media and sponsors jumped on the bandwagon of the so-called missile.
Firstly, there was the lead-off swim in the 4 x 100m freestyle relay. Magnussen would give his team mates a body length lead or thereabouts, and the other 3 guys would simply hang onto the lead to win and claim the gold medal.
That’s how they did it at the world championship in Shanghai in 2011, and that’s how they would do it here in London.
But Magnussen fizzled. For those who are old enough, but also remember when they were young enough to play with fire crackers, Magnussen was like one of those rockets you lit and waited expectantly for it to whizz off into the sky, but all you get is a puff of smoke, the slightest suggestion of fizz, and then just fizzle.
You could sense the life drain out of the remaining Aussie swimmers – Matt Targett, Eamon Sullivan and James Roberts. This wasn’t how the script was supposed to read and it had failed on the first page. Meanwhile, Magnussen sat on the blocks contemplating how it could possibly had gone all so wrong.
Magnussen never recovered. He said some smart, deep and meaningful things between the relay and individual 100m events, but his body language betrayed him. He remained lost.
He still remains lost, despite saying he has no regrets. He has a mountain of regrets.
In the 100m freestyle final, Magnussen swam like a man condemned. He swam well enough, but the confidence was gone. So was the desperation. Magnussen had gone from being desperately determined to win to just hoping to win.
There’s a huge difference.
When the American Nathan Adrian challenged hard over the last 25 metres, it was almost as if Magnussen had the lost the will to fight back. Adrian kept his head down for the last 15 metres, kept his body perfectly straight, didn’t breathe and attacked the wall like a crazed rhino.
Magnussen was somewhere else, distracted, probably still trying to figure out his 100m relay leg. Sure he tried, but the desperation wasn’t there.
Here’s the thing – confidence is everything. Had Magnussen swum the relay like he meant to, and then been challenged in the individual 100m, there’s no way Adrian would have got past him. But Magnussen was hurting – in his heart.
In the wash-up, I have sympathy for Magnussen. He’s a young man who has had to learn several brutal lessons in the glare of the world. Pretty well all of us say and do stupid things in our youth, but mostly we do it away from the brutal glare of publicity.
One lesson for him is to let his deeds do the talking. There’s plenty of time for crowing afterwards. Another thing is to cash in when you’re on top of your game, because you don’t know if or when you’ll get another chance.
There are examples to both encourage and discourage Magnussen. Which side of the ledger his story will eventually be told remains to be seen.
Aussie Jon Hendricks won the 100m freestyle in 1956 and went to Rome in 1960 where illness scuppered his chances in the semi-finals. Team mate John Devitt, who claimed silver in 1956, went one better in 1960, claiming the gold, albeit in very controversial circumstances.
Another Aussie Mike Wenden won the 100m freestyle in 1968 and went to Munich in 1972, but was only a shadow of his former self.
Brash American Mark Spitz told the world he would win 6 gold medals in Mexico City, but the only two golds he picked up were in relays. Four years later in Munich, having digested the lessons of life, he won 7 gold medals.
Rowdy Gaines was denied a gold medal in 1980 by the American boycott of the Moscow games. He had to wait another 4 years before claiming the blue riband event in Los Angeles.
Aussie Mark Stockwell was touched out by Gaines in 1984, but never had another opportunity.
More recently, there is the example of Magnussen’s current team mate Eamon Sullivan, who was favourite for the 100m 4 years ago, only to be beaten into silver.
He qualified again in 2012, but was no longer the top dog.
The spotlight is also firmly on the coaches, managers and support staff of the swimming team. More swimmers have been below par than above par. Why? Where did he taper of the swimmers go wrong?
Tapering is not a new sports science discovered last year, or last decade. It’s been around almost as long as competitive swimming itself.
There is a huge amount of support staff who also get paid handsomely to know precisely how to prepare the swimmers to be at their best. This doesn’t appear to have happened in most cases.
Anyway, who cares about tapering? Stephanie Rice virtually swam on one and a half arms. What a gutsy athlete. Had she just been able to have some more freedom in her shoulder and less pain, she would have swum over broken glass to get a medal.
There just wasn’t enough desperation among many of the Aussie swimmers.
Finally, are the media and the fans too tough on our swimmers? The swimmers are the rock stars of the Olympic team. The pressure is always greatest on them, but so are the rewards.
The swimmers can’t have it both ways, enjoying the fruits of being the star sport, but complaining when the glare of the spotlight is too bright.
My observation is that a few Aussie swimmers expected the gold to “just happen”. They had forgotten that there were talented swimmers from many other countries with similar abilities and ambitions, who might just be a little more desperate to realise their dream.
Two silvers, but entirely different emotions.
I used to think I was a pretty good rugby lock, but now realise I was deluded. My nickname is a truncation of my surname, so I'm not Arabic - phew! However, sometimes I imagine myself as a Beau Geste in the French Foreign Legion, fighting evil, righting wrongs, promoting good and rescuing damsels in distress.