The Olympics really brings out mixed emotions in me.
I love watching athletes push the boundaries of what is physically capable by a human. I also don’t mind the schadenfreude of a weightlifter accidentally dropping 196 kilograms on himself. I am pretty overwhelmed by how fey and winsome the mascots Wenlock and Mandeville sound. I hope they get to listen to Belle & Sebastian under those costumes.
However, what I really dislike is the jingo-ism, tall poppy syndrome and other external narratives imposed by the Australian media and Australians generally. The narrative that is currently playing out is Australia’s “failure” to achieve its “fair share” of medals. There are myriad examples, but here are some clangers:
- The head of the Australian Olympic Committee, John Coates, blames the lack of sport in schools, with the ABC reporting that “Mr Coates says he is disappointed by Australia’s medal haul so far and has called on the Federal Government to consider changing its policy and funding to give priority to school sports.“
- Shaun Carney, Associate Editor of The Age, blames Twitter (obviously), opining that “the point is, Australians pay for these athletes to compete, not to ”have fun” or waste their energies on Twitter and Facebook or to buckle under the pressure and then make excuses about it.”
- The ever tasteful Andrew Bolt chimes in by implying that the Australian athletes are mentally ill, wondering ”whether it’s money we’re missing, or character, because I’ve never seen so many grown athletes blubbering and confessing to sleepless nights and despair. Heavens, it’s like group therapy time at Beyond Blue.”
- The Federal Minister for Sport, Kate Lundy, resorts to bad punmaking (the last refuge of a scoundrel) urging us to ”take heart in the London Olympics Aussie ‘Silver Lining’! We are up there with the best of the best in the world.”
I have a fair bit to say on the Olympics and I hopefully will follow-up in the next few days with further comment, but to begin, I wanted to reflect on what irks me about the present discourse in Australia surrounding the Olympics. In order to keep this present post reasonably focussed, I want to principally confine my thoughts to the sporting realm.
Firstly, the appeal of sport is that it is competitive. If, as the Australian media would have you believe, the Australian swimmers were entitled to a certain number of gold medals, what is the point?
Secondly, if – as appears to be generally accepted by the Australian Olympic Committee when they are seeking funding, but conveniently ignored in the good times – there is a strong correlation between funding for elite sport and number of gold medals achieved (with a going rate of $15 million for each Australian Gold medal in Beijing), then what is being tested at the Olympics? Our national desire to fund sport?
Finally (for the moment), is the medal count at the Olympics, the sole criterion for judging a nation’s sporting success? Leaving for the moment, the teleological question of what is the purpose of sport, measuring success by medal count is a pretty crude measure when there are 81 gold medals up for grabs in Athletics and Swimming, but only 2 for Basketball. If you believe that it is, will you please tell Le Bron James that Michael Phelps is 13 times better than him at sport?
I told you I was back…