Do our athletes need more money?
Imagine aliens had decided to tour the world in the last couple of weeks. Starting in London and catching some of the Olympic events, they then head over the Atlantic only to find they have to wait ages before they can catch up on the highlights.
Cruising around the world, said aliens might have partied in the Bahamas after their men won the 4 x 400m relay; prost-ed the discus success (and subsequent Hulk impersonation) of German Robert Harting; even sharing a haggis and Irn-Bru as Andy Murray finally won a Wimbledon final.
Heading over the Pacific our other-worldly friends would have then come across two neighbours with very different national moods.
Had they been watching the rowing with in New Zealand they would have enjoyed the party as they won three gold medals; had they popped straight across the Tasman they might be surprised to find a nation of 23 million people despairing despite winning 13 medals to that point.
They’re surprised at the how disappointed people are despite the fact that of the countries with more medals, the next smallest population was South Korea with 14 medals and 50 million people.
They’d also be confused about the comments that these were Australia’s worst games since Montreal in 1976.
Let’s rewind then back to Montreal, 1976. For locals these Olympics gave the wonderful present of 30 years worth of debt, while Australia’s present wasn’t much better.
Australian athletes won precisely one silver medal and four bronze; more galling was the fact that Australia’s sole silver came from losing the men’s gold medal hockey match… to New Zealand.
These Olympics were the first time the Kiwis had finished higher on the medal tally than Australia, a feat they repeated with their record-breaking eight gold medals in Los Angeles in 1984.
Clearly, Australia had to do something. The country that had given the world Olympic champions like Shane Gould, Dawn Fraser and Betty Cuthbert now found itself out of the top-ten position it had held since the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.
The poor performance in Montreal followed two reports in the mid 1970s, leading to increased sports funding from the Federal Government and the establishment of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in 1981.
It took a little while for the AIS to start producing gold medallists – the first was the women’s hockey team in Seoul in 1988 – but by the time of the Sydney Olympics, AIS athletes won 32 out of Australia’s 58 medals, including eight golds (out of 16).
The rest of the world suddenly began to take notice, including the British, who managed to entice a number of Australian coaches halfway across the world in an effort to win more golds on home soil.
British Olympic Association chair Colin Moynihan said “They have provided through their institute some remarkable coaches which we’ve been fortunate enough to benefit from across a number of sports.”
He’s not the only one that thinks this way. On Channel 9, former Olympic champion Linford Christie said pretty much the same thing, suggesting it’s not that Australia’s standards that have fallen; rather that everyone else has caught up.
Factor that with the score of countries that have just or will soon celebrate their 21st birthdays and the money many resource-rich countries are splashing around, then Australia’s performances are still above-average on a per-capita basis.
That’s not to say questions shouldn’t be asked. Many Australian athletes are funded through government grants, and we as taxpayers have the right to ask whether our money is being spent wisely.
But for all of Australia’s golds that ended up silver or bronze, we learnt to properly celebrate the achievements of people like Tom Slingsby, Anna Meares and Sally Pearson with genuine joy rather than a “ho-hum, another gold”.
And as Richard Hinds said, “Seeing Australian athletes who have not reached their goals, or those imposed upon them, tempering their natural devastation with dignity and good humour. Surely, that is a far better reflection of a great sporting nation than any dollars-for-gold medal table.”
“… Don’t allow the pompous blazers, and the publicity hungry politicians to obscure your view. Home and away, Australia is a great sporting nation and – on balance – a nation of great sports. These Olympics did absolutely nothing to change that.”
When you win more medals than countries twice your population, 16 silvers and 12 bronzes should be a cause for celebration, not for complaint.
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