The Roar
The Roar


Alicia's tears shows tall poppy syndrome alive and well

Alicia Coutts in tears (JOSEP LAGO / AFP)
31st July, 2013
7814 Reads

I was a little puzzled when I saw this pop up on my Twitter timeline in the early hours of yesterday morning.

@Alicia_Coutts: I apologize if I upset Australia for showing I am human. My emotions got the better of me on Sunday night. I felt I had let my team down!!!!

The previous day I had seen how Alicia Coutts had reacted to narrowly missing a gold medal with the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay team at the world championships in Barcelona.

Having been swum over in the final lap of the relay by her American counterpart, losing the race by just 0.12s, she was distraught, feeling she had not only let down her three teammates who had put her in a winning position, but also the nation she so proudly represents.

She said in a post-race interview: “I can honestly say for the first time in my career I feel like I’ve let them down.”

Swimming is an individual sport, except when they swim relays. That is when they feel part of a team, and every swimmer cherishes being part of a relay on a national team, and nobody then wants to feel like they have cost the team a win. Coutts felt that way.

So what was she apologising for? Being human?

After some investigation, I discovered why Coutts had apologised.

Coutts had copped it – both barrels. Readers comments on the stories about the relay team were littered with attacks on the 25-year-old, who just 12 months earlier was our quietly-spoken Olympic Golden Girl having joined Shane Gould and Ian Thorpe as the only Australian Olympians to have won five medals at the one Games.


“More tears, temper tantrums and displays of bad sportsmanship.”
“So over these prima donna swimmers.”
“Spoiled brats.”
“Cut their funding.”
“If I can’t win I’ll sulk.”
“You lost because you weren’t fast enough. Get over it.”
“Here we go again – another taxpayer funded athlete fails again in her bid for Gold. What is wrong with a Silver?”

Are some of these people serious? Do they have any idea? What have we become? I am happy for people to have an opinion, to make a comment, that’s what the new age of media is all about, but seriously, perhaps comment on things you have some idea about.

Admittedly Australian swimming became a little on the nose after the London Olympics. There was criticism of Emily Seebohm in tears literally moments after winning silver in her individual event, of James Magnussen arrogant confidence coming unstuck when he missed gold, and then after the chlorine had settled, came revelations of the men’s relay team’s Stilnox initiation and prank scandal in the pre-Games camp in Manchester.

Some of that criticism may have been justified, some perhaps not. But this time, it’s way, way off the mark.

Coutts is nothing like any of those ridiculous references. She’s a tough competitor who swims to win. That is after all what elite sport is all about – isn’t it? She’s not a bad sport. She is proud of her achievements. She oozes patriotism and is not swimming just for herself, but proudly for every Australian.

In London, Coutts won gold in that same relay, the 4x100m freestyle, a bronze in the 100m butterfly and three silvers, in the 200m individual medley, and the 4x200m and 4x100m medley relays. She was proud and happy with all her results.

I just don’t get it. It wasn’t that long ago people were complaining because athletes – swimmers included – were like robots, trotting out cliches and never showing any emotion. Now, they show emotion, they wear their hearts on the swim caps, and what do some people do, bag them for it.

Here’s a bit of context. Most swimmers train six or seven days a week, usually twice in the water, and now also daily in the gym. They have a few weeks off after the big event of the year, and then it’s back into training. NO swimmer in Australia earns big bucks. NONE.


An Olympic gold medal may mean instant, temporary, celebrity, but it doesn’t mean a financial windfall. The sport really is done for the love it. Sure they get funding, but you won’t find too many swimmers driving a Porsche.

Each year there is one big event. They have selection trials for that event, other minor meets, but all the focus is on that one major event each year – the Olympics, the world championships, or the Commonwealth Games.

They all spend each 12 months aiming at one specific event. For some that means one race, it could be just 21 seconds worth. A year’s work comes down to that, and if it doesn’t work out, well you’ve got another 12 months to have another shot at that level.

Whether it is a 21 second 50m freestyle, or like Coutts, a handful of events, this is it. For swimmers each year, this is their grand final.

Look for us, silver is great. Second best in the world. Not gold, but hey, the next best thing, and second best is something to be proud of.

We watch football grand finals each year, and regardless of the code – AFL, league, football or union – without fail at the end of the match, the television cameras will pan past the scenes of jubilation, to find the disconsolate players on the ground, grown men with tears streaming down their faces, or staring away into space in a state of shock, or their heads nestled in the shoulder of a teammate or coach.

How come we don’t condemn them as prima donnas, or spoiled brats? Sure they didn’t win, but they finished second. It’s the next best thing to winning apparently. Shouldn’t they be proud to have just reached the grand final? And there’s another chance next year. What, they can’t win so they sulk?

That feeling for footballers, is exactly what it is like for those swimmers. Each year the swimmers have one grand final. Some are a realistic chance to win, and to come so close and miss out, hurts. You are going to get emotion, and good on them. I want to see that. It is human as Coutts said. If I wanted robot reactions, I’d play Xbox.


We are taught winning isn’t everything. It’s not, as they say, the only thing, but for those in elite sport, like Coutts, it’s why they go to work each day.