September 1, 2008
A 'Pretty Admirable' Showing From Australia
AUSTRALIA – There's a strange tendency for Australians to equate brawn with brilliance, and the most recent Olympic Games in Beijing sent a charming national quirk into overdrive.
Bronze? Legend. Silver? Demi-god. Gold? The Greatest Person On the Face of the Earth. Ever.
In other words, we love our sport, but we love our players more.
Indeed, amidst a spate of footballer dramas, the guaranteed brilliance and pomp of the Olympics was just what our national psyche needed – and the faith exhibited by legions of Aussie sports fans, as well as the delusion that accompanies it, would make Benedict blush.
Forgiveness is a virtue, and armed with shamelessly patriotic media coverage, the Games demonstrated just how much we are willing to overlook in order to fulfill the national ideal.
As always, our swimmers turned in some predictably fine work to open the campaign, and with new, marketable faces like Stephanie Rice and Eamon Sullivan (who, before a heart-breaking split, looked set to become Beijing's aquatic Posh and Becks), the omission of Ian Thorpe seemed bearable.
Expectations were high, and a spate of gold medals solidified the national pride, whilst disappointments exhibited an underlying resentment for failure – Grant Hackett's ardent stab at a hat trick of 1500m freestyle came cataclysmically short, with whispers of the victor's drug-cheating past glossing over an aging athlete's swansong.
Outside the Water Cube, things were progressing well. After being battered by a competitor in a cycling event, we were delivered a surprise silver medal, and when the hurdles' female favorite took an abrupt dive, we collected another unexpected second place.
It seemed the hard work of our swimmers could only be eclipsed by accidental victories – but a medal's a medal, and Australia was tracking fifth on the tally.
Then there was the revelation of Britain's enormous sports funding grant, which sent the intrinsic Australian competitive streak into political turmoil. Forget drought, a looming recession and a dissatisfied labor force – the Poms were forking out over a billion bucks? Stop the press!
A national newspaper, The Herald Sun of Melbourne, calculated that each Australian gold medal was costing taxpayers a cool $17 million, which, compared to the global commodities prices, seemed somewhat disproportionate.
The Australian swimming coach, Alan Thompson, went on the record to say that we needed to inject more funding into national programs immediately – or, undoubtedly – risk utter international humiliation and degradation in London, 2012.
Perhaps it's my natural inclination for 'indoor activities,' but a final place of sixth in the world for a nation of about 20 million people seemed pretty admirable to me. But then again, maybe I'm not as patriotic as some.
All in all, Beijing was a flurry of triumphs, bitter defeats and general bias in the media – but then again, isn't that what the Olympics is all about?
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