Recent results suggest Australian distance running is in an exciting renaissance phase. Three runners have stood out and recently produced Australian records on the world stage.
Imagine being told that your job is only relevant, or relevant to anyone outside of your workplace, every four years.
Imagine busting your arse, hustling and bustling all over the world to chase a standard for an event you may never be able to reach again, because without being an Olympian, you are made to feel all of your efforts are empty.
The expectation put on athletes across an entire Olympic build-up is unlike many. All sports have pressure to perform in many different facets. For those who are big supporters of the AFL, NRL and cricket, I understand that week in and week out, athletes are expected to be at their best during the season, otherwise they face the harsh reality of public backlash if they slip. I get that.
But imagine now you are a struggling athlete who may be one of the lucky few to receive a contract above the bare minimum. You train for a sport that is all year round in its conditioning, not allowing yourself to ever really have an off day because if you are caught slipping, there is someone out there who hasn’t.
Unlike major sports, which have an outcome every year in the form of a grand final or a winning series, athletes are forced to resign to the fact that their one shot at public recognition and validation in their career only comes once every four years, only for the general population to turn around and say that sports don’t deserve anything and that AFL and cricket get all the coverage because they’re what people care about, rather than 5000-metre races.
I won’t stand for it, and as a nation, we should not stand for that level of mediocrity in our approach to the non-dominating sports.
I can only speak for athletics given it is the sport I grew up loving and competing in. This sentiment of unfair pressure can be spread across a wide range of Olympic sports.
I am not saying that we need to blame media outlets for not putting these lesser known sports at the forefront of their sports coverage in replacement of sports that generate a large income within the country.
What I am saying, however, is that it is fundamentally unrealistic to expect athletes in this position to become household names when they are only given that opportunity by the public once every four years.
Take the pressure off. These world-class athletes already feel the pressure of having to fund themselves, be away from their family and friends for extended periods of the year, and to compete and perform to even have a shot at making the Olympics.
It is up to us, as people who write for and believe in the sport, to be able to share with the greater public the accomplishments of the athletes to a point where the Olympics are a great achievement for a person you love and follow, not a tool for you to now give them recognition for something that may take years to build up to.
In my previous article, one reader made a point that stuck with me.
“The Olympics is both a blessing and a curse for sports like athletics and swimming. Once every four years, they get massive coverage, but at the elite level, at least to Australians, every other competition is considered just training for the Olympics. I’m not sure how you break that cycle.”
This resonated with me to my core. This is the same as saying that every game in the AFL season is purely just a training game until you hit the big time, whether you deem that to be the AFL finals, or more aptly, the grand final.
To those players, I encourage you to think about the time, effort and dedication you put into every game, only to be left feeling as though it is irrelevant. It’s purely a training game and if you are so lucky, you may get a shot at the big dance. This needs to change, and it needs to change soon.
To alleviate the pressure of the four-year cycle there needs to be more media attention not only to the races but also to the people behind the results.
So often people become invested in sports because they feel aligned to a club or a player and that their success means something to them because they feel like they know them for more than just their athletic ability.
Put track and field athletes on talk shows, create advertising campaigns based around them, and have them speak at businesses. There needs to be more of a presence of these athletes at a community level.
By being able to make these amazing competitors more human to those around us, it then generates a connection far deeper than just seeing them on the television every four years. It flows into genuine care and a genuine desire for them to do well no matter what the race is.
The idea of sports not deserving something is true. Sports themselves do not deserve anything. But the athletes within them do.
The amount of time and energy put into these sports is astronomical, and it’s time that we as a community and as a sporting nation do more to make these athletes feel validated and encouraged for more than just becoming an Olympian.