Australia are sliding towards their worst Olympics in the pool for 20 years after a succession of gold medal hopes have ended in silver at London’s Aquatics Centre.
A pall has descended over the team after talisman James Magnussen’s one-hundredth of a second defeat in the men’s 100m freestyle, an event he was favoured to win as reigning world champion and the year’s fastest swimmer.
With only three days left in the competition, Australia have just one gold from the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay win on Saturday’s opening night along with five silvers and two bronze.
It is likely the one-time powerful Australian team will fall well short of the number of gold medals won at the past three Olympics and may struggle to surpass the return from the 1992 Barcelona Games of one gold from nine medals.
Australian head coach Leigh Nugent has conceded that his team will get “nowhere near” the gold hauls of the past three Olympics — five in Sydney (2000), seven in Athens (2004) and six in Beijing (2008).
A gold hush as one Australian newspaper termed it in London.
“That’s life. I’ve got a job to do, I’m doing the best I can, this team is doing the best it can and whatever measure people want to put on that, they are at liberty to do that,” Nugent said.
Asked about the comparisons with recent Games hauls, Nugent said: “Nowhere near it, but that’s the life we live.”
To add to Australia’s agony, the three remaining long course world records held by Australians coming into the London Games have all been broken.
Nothing more encapsulates the Australian team’s struggle in the London pool than Magnussen missing out on gold as the lead-off swimmer in the men’s medal-less freestyle relay team and in his prime 100m freestyle event.
The brash-talking 21-year-old led into the last 25m of the 100m freestyle but American Nathan Adrian fought back and tipped him out of the gold medal in 47.52sec, the fastest race of his life.
Magnussen swam his fastest 100m of the Games, 47.53sec, but it was almost half a second slower than his winning time of 47.10sec at the Australian Olympic trials last March.
“To lose by that amount stings a lot … It’s been a tough Olympics. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger so hopefully I come out of this a better swimmer but most of all a better person,” he said.
“I guess having such a successful young career I just felt pretty much bulletproof coming into these Olympics and it’s very humbling.
“I’ve got a lot more respect for guys like Michael Phelps who can come to an Olympics and back up under pressure.
“It’s a bit of a reality check. As my coach said, it’s a pretty tough time to learn that you’re human, but I really tried to pick myself up after those first few days and I gave it everything for myself and the people of Australia.”
Australia’s triple Olympic swimming champion Ian Thorpe said he was surprised with Magnussen’s form at the Olympics.
“I’ve been very surprised with the way James (Magnussen) is swimming here, he’s well below his best,” Thorpe told Australian radio.
“It is disappointing and we are all feeling it, I’m really surprised that he’s so off form.”