Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Not all fun, or Games for Aussies

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BRISBANE -- Australia is gazing solemnly at its navel this week as, with a resigned sigh, it slips on a hair shirt and begins months of self flagellation.

It's not a religious ritual. A failure to win Olympic glory in this nation requires a far more vigorous bout of self abasement than any spiritual doctrine demands.

By mid-week Australians finally accepted the game was up at the Games. By Wednesday we were stalled miserably in the London medal tally at 11th, well short of our ambitions of being safely inside the top five, and with few prospects of any dramatic improvement.

It's not the failure of our swimming team to live up to expectations, nor that we ranked behind Kazakhstan in the gold medal tally. It's not that the "Poms'' (the British) can now snicker behind their hands that we're a nation of girlie men, nor even that Argentina was better at field hockey.

It's a combination of all those things and a whole lot more indefinable variables which have left a leaden pall across a nation which invests so much in its reputation for sporting prowess.

Not since 1976 and Montreal, where we won not one gold medal, have we been so humiliated. You can be assured our talented Olympians are bearing the full brunt of our national angst.

There they sit fidgeting in their chair while we circle them, as your parents did when you got caught smoking in the school gymnasium, brandishing the most savage psychological weapon of all -- guilt.

"Is this our fault?'' we're asking them quietly.

"Did we fail you somewhere along the way?

"Are we the slackers and you, poor misguided souls, the sad, smudged reflections of our own indolent, lackadaisical lives?''

The ruthless self-examination in the wake of our unexpectedly uninspired performance at the London Games can't be overstated.

It was sparked partly by former Olympic swimmer Susie O'Neill, who questioned whether the new generation of Australian swimmers is up to the hard yards.

While anxious not to criticize swimmers individually, O'Neill did ponder if over the past decade the rising generation of sports elites were not capable of the work required to be gold medallists.

"What I've been hearing a little bit from different people is the work ethic from Australian swimmers is maybe not the same as it used to be 10 years ago," she said last week.

No less than the high-end newspaper The Financial Review fleshed out the theme in a thundering editorial sermon.

"This is similar to the also misguided belief that we will forever be rewarded for our mineral wealth,'' the paper said.

"Our dashed Olympic hopes are a reminder that both our continued sporting success and ongoing economic well-being require hard work and a relentless effort to innovate and improve our competitiveness.''

Just briefly ignoring the fact that anyone who qualified for the Olympics exercised more self-discipline in the past year than most Australians do in a lifetime, the allegation of a faltering work ethic is itself fascinating.

Games are not, um, work. They're games. They're a diversion from productive labour, but it is true that somewhere in the middle of the 20th century we entered a hall of mirrors where games became work.

As recently as the 1970s, our most famous footballers could still be seen at their regular week day job, stacking beer cartons at the local pub. Now they're cotton wooled away in science-based training regimens and overseen by psychologists.

It's the same for Olympians who are the beneficiaries of millions of taxpayer dollars, while internationally the games are a massive commercial operation where countries can also flex their muscle -- a sporting version of those massive military parades of which the Eastern Bloc was so fond in the '60s.

And Australia, although a remote middling power on the international stage, has long grown used to being near centre stage amid all the glory when the medals are presented.

For now it's back to the drawing board.

Swimming Australia has announced a review into its team's worst Olympic performance in 20 years, while all Olympic sports will conduct post-mortems of the London games.

And amid all the soul-searching and workshopping and blame-laying that lie ahead, let no Australian dare suggest "it's only a game.''

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 10, 2012 A14

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