What do we want?

As the Olympics draw to a close the media is awash with stories citing disappointment in our Australian team’s performance. I can understand this, it is certainly a fall from previous years but there are quite a few simple things we seem to forget. Australia has only 24 million people; compared to nations like the U.S., China and even Great Britain we are tiny. China boasts nearly 1.4 billion people. Can we really expect to produce as many top athletes as a nation of that size?

The other point that has been somewhat overlooked is a serious factor contributing to both Great Britain and Japan’s performances. London hosted the last Olympics and Tokyo is due to host the next. This makes a significant difference to these nations, focused on and funding their athletes for strong home performances. We have fared reasonably well following our own games in Sydney, snagging 16 medals in 2000. We are no longer bathed in that afterglow and have been relegated to tenth on the medal tally.

Much of the outcry relating to these poor performances by our athletes stems from the funds that were put into getting our athletes to Rio. Apparently people are the same as any other investment – we expect returns. This aspect of the discussion really bothers me and has me asking, is winning really that important? Is this not a direct contradiction to everything we tell our kids as they grow up? ‘Have fun, as long as you try your hardest it doesn’t matter who wins.’ Australia’s reaction to Rio indicates that apparently here in Australia, we only want winners.

In business we have now turned our attention to the triple bottom line – success is not determined only by financial success but by reaching social and environmental goals as well. So why in the sporting world do we measure our Olympic campaign only by gold? I found no shortage of amazing stories in these games, hard work and determination being rewarded. Some of those were not even gold medal performances (shocking I know). Dane Bird-Smith’s bronze medal in the 20km walk was a performance that moved me. He was overcome with joy, knowing he had done his best. It was the third best in the world, sure, but it was his best.

If part of the problem our athletes are facing is psychological, then I am afraid the blame lies not only with them. The scrutiny, the deep, deep, disappointment we have made abundantly clear must be doing wonders for their mental health. This negative attitude and claims that heads must roll is not creating an environment in which these athletes can flourish. Many of our medal winners were previously unknown names, what does this say? It appears the absence of public attention enables success.

I think Australia must ask itself, what do we want? Do we want to invest pots of money to ensure we bring home those gold medals? I hate to tell them but sport does not always work that way and for me it is the moments that defy logic that I admire the most. Watching the 50km walk I heard from Tallent’s wife all the science they had diligently applied to ensure he had everything he needed to succeed in the race. However it wasn’t science that won it. Toth’s form was shot, he looked ready to fall down not long before the end of the race, yet somehow, he found something to enable him to pass Tallent and claim gold. It is these moments that no money can buy. I don’t know about you, but I don’t really care how many medals we win. I care more about how they are won.


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