Spectator Sporting A New Low

9 / 08 / 2012

By Sarah Capper

It’s a wonder Australia’s freakish silver streak at the London Olympics, otherwise known as our lack of gold medal pulling power, hasn’t (as yet, there’s still time) been directly blamed on Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Oh hang on, some have come pretty close, with Kevan Gosper – Australian member of the International Olympic Committee – blaming cuts to federal funding and a lack of government “focus”.

The Prime Minister can no doubt sympathise with some of the disparaging commentary surrounding Australian athletes at the Games.

Gillard is an old hat receiver of criticism, which has dogged her since the 2010 ‘national championships’.

At that race she initially tied for Silver with the Coalition, almost in a dead heat, but in a skilful subsequent Gold medal penalty shoot-out she generated support of athletes from other ‘teams’ and was able to stand on the winner’s dais.

No one’s really let her forget that, and her Prime Ministership has seen her performing all sorts of acrobatic feats in dodging criticism from all directions, not just the traditional source of the opposing team.

And indeed that’s been relentless, with Opposition leader Tony Abbott no stranger to gruelling work-outs – at times behaving like a jaded athlete who thinks he should have got selection for the team, but just missed out, crying ‘foul’ at any opportunity.

In terms of legislation passed and the act of running the country, the Gillard Government is certainly not as dysfunctional as it’s often made out to be (although Treasurer Wayne Swan should be told next time his PM goes on holidays that he’s not really the ‘Boss’).

Yet the Government and PM seem to face a constant conga-line of attacks from outside spheres. Last week it was cattle boss David Farley’s turn, resorting to bovine comparisons at a speech in Adelaide last Thursday:

“So the old cows that become non-productive, instead of making a decision to either let her die in the paddock or put her in the truck, this gives us a chance to take non-productive animals off and put them through the processing system,” Mr Farley reportedly said.

“So it’s designed for non-productive old cows. Julia Gillard’s got to watch out.”

On top of various stakeholders’ sexist views, there’s always a steady stream of commentary questioning Gillard’s prowess in the media.

ABC commentator Barrie Cassidy recently wrote of the relentless attacks on Gillard on the ABC website The Drum, noting that media leadership speculation has a “self-fulfilling prophecy to it”:

“The journalists don’t want to be wrong, whether they make the predictions in public or in private conversations among their peers. They become willing participants in what to many of them is the only game in town.”

The “other” game in [London] town has provided a small respite for Gillard. The boot has instead been kicked into our Australian athletes, particularly our swimmers, who we normally like to gloat about as being the best in the world. Next to the USA.

Politicians aren’t unlike elite athletes. For the most part, they’re incredibly ambitious, work damn hard, and are obsessed by winning – sometimes so focused on the minutiae of achieving this that they lose perspective with the ordinary person (try that one on for size next time, Nick Darcy and Kendrick Monk).

The first week of the Games saw a string of Australian swimmers follow their races (some being silver medal performances) with tears lamenting how they didn’t want to “disappoint a nation”.

In her fourth Olympic Games appearance, swimmer Liesel Jones had questions surrounding her supposed weight gain and fitness levels. In finishing fifth in the 100 metre individual breastroke final – fifth in the entire world – she described being in that final as “better than” she could have hoped for. A letter to the Editor in one major Australian newspaper following the race questioned what she was doing there in the first place, if coming fifth surpassed her expectations.

Are we that driven by winning – and only winning – that anything less becomes not good enough, or seen as a disappointment? Do we really think winning some swimming race makes us appear “better” in some way as a nation? In a more general sense, are we too quick to negatively judge our representatives, in and out of the pool?

By the weekend, Australian athletes began to defend their results in front of a questioning media.  Silver medal-winning long jumper Mitchell Watt summed it up superbly:

“I think people need to start understanding that it is not easy to win an Olympic gold medal and there is absolutely nothing wrong with a silver medal and I was copping questions in the mixed zone last night. The first question I got was “aww, a disappointing result”.

“The team is happy, I am happy, the coach is happy. I got thousands of messages back home that they are happy and the only people that aren’t happy are you guys. So you need to wake up.”