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The Olympics are addictive and our Aussies are addicts

16th February, 2011
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The lure of London isn’t money. It’s addiction; getting one more hit of the greatest fix sport offers – the Olympic high.

Swimmer Michael Klim is the latest Australian seduced by next year’s London Olympics.

Klim this week ended his three-year retirement, following Australian Olympic greats Ian Thorpe, rower Drew Ginn and swimmers Libby Trickett and Geoff Huegill in announcing comebacks.

All, to a degree, are addicts, says sports psychologist Jeff Bond.

“There is a lot of themselves invested in their athletic identity and it’s very, very difficult to give that away,” says Bond, an Australian team psychologist at nine summer and winter Olympics.

“Those athletes are all huge names and all are well known for being athletes.

“So for them to actually quit entirely is a very tough thing to do because they lose a lot of things – they lose a bit of identity, which is why you sometimes see retired athletes falling into a deep hole, because they don’t have much of an identity outside of their sport.”

Bond, who was head of psychology at the Australian Institute of Sport for 22 years, says the athletes miss the routine, discipline and rigour of the Olympic cycle.

“They become habitual trainers and to give that away is tough, it’s a bit like trying to give away other things that you’re addicted to, there is a bad withdrawal period,” he says.

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“They miss the adulation, and the other thing is the adrenaline which goes with high level competition. The buzz in and around an Olympics is not like anything else that pretty much anybody else in the world experiences.

“So step away, you lose all of that. You lose that structure, that support, the recognition, the excitement, and you lose that competitive drug you have been on for years.”

Bond says the lure for Thorpe and company is also partly the location.

“London is a comfortable Games,” he says.

“… It’s the Mother Country, we could all just pack up and go and live in England pretty comfortably, aside from the weather and the ragging we’d get from the cricketing Poms.”

But Australia’s Olympic chef de mission Nick Green reckons the returnees would have embarked on comebacks no matter the location.

“The lure of the Olympics is far greater than the destination it is being held … the lure of the Olympics is just too great,” says Green, a dual Olympic rowing gold medallist.

“It just so happens that the ones coming out of retirement now are legends in our Olympic history, some of the greatest Olympians ever produced in this country.”

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Green says the Olympic fix is overpowering.

“Sometimes it’s difficult for an athlete to completely let go because of the romantic side of sport and the joys of being there – being completely fit, travelling the world, being with your mates,” Green says.

“You are almost living a dream of `someone is paying for me to be overseas and competing at sport’ … it doesn’t get any better than that.”

Both Green and Bond dismiss money as a comeback motive.

“Olympic competition, the prize of yourself being at the Olympic Games, is far greater than anything that may come, whether it’s wealth or fame,” Green says.

Bond believes the comeback swimmers “aren’t hard up for a dollar”.

“And for Drew Ginn … I don’t think anybody has got wealthy from being a great rower,” Bond says.

But he says the longer recovery time for older athletes looms as an obstacle, while Green identifies time as the enemy.

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“While the mind is saying `I can do it, in my day I was great and surely I could repeat those performances’, quite often the body tells you otherwise,” Green says.

“Or more importantly, the body takes some time to be conditioned.

“So with 14 or 15 months to go, you’re cutting an extremely fine line to be race ready.”

The timeframe for their comebacks is similar to revered Australian runner Betty Cuthbert, Australia’s Olympic historian Harry Gordon says.

Cuthbert won three gold medals at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

The devout Presbyterian made a comeback for the 1964 Tokyo Games because God told her to.

Cuthbert won another gold and later recalled: “I ran the race but God took over, he picked them (her feet) up and I put them down”.

Gordon rates Cuthbert’s comeback a standout, with that of Australian swimmer Frank Beaurepaire.

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Beaurepaire’s Olympic career spanned 16 years, winning medals in 1908, 1920 and 1924.

After the `08 Games, Beaurepaire was deemed a professional because he took a job as a Victorian physical education teacher.

“He then made his comeback to Olympic swimming in `20 and then `24,” Gordon says.

“It’s a remarkable comeback, probably when you talk about comebacks, it’s the standout.”