Geoff Roach from the Adelaide Advertiser wrote a fairly damning article about Australian Athletics that laid the current woes of athletics in Australia at the feet of the athletes, rather than the board that has squandered millions of dollars and untold opportunities following on from the Sydney Olympics. Prominent Australian marathon runner Lee Troop replied to this article, but not surprisingly, has had no response from the author, let alone a published right of reply. Therefore, Crikey’s Las Vegas division – host to many a good fight over the years – is happy to present both articles in full so you can be the judge.

Prima donnas on track to let all of us down

By Geoff Roach

The Advertiser

March 4, 2004

LISTEN up, because here it comes again. The lamentable sound of Australian track and field athletes whining about their lot.

It’s a familiar chorus, one which usually evolves around Olympic Games time.

And, as usual, it is emanating from the classic underachievers of Australian sport. Our runners.

Already this year we have learned that Victorian coaches and athletes are refusing to co-operate with the great Moroccan runner, Said Aouita, the national distance coach. And that many athletes consider head coach Keith Connor, a supreme competitor on the big occasion, to be too much of a control freak.

Then, on Tuesday night, in a television interview, it was mediocre Melbourne runner Lauren Hewitt’s turn to sound off about the supposed inadequacies of Athletics Australia officialdom and, specifically, about AA chief executive Simon Allatson.

Unsurprisingly, the principal cause of her angst appeared to be money – the only factor which seems to motivate most of this nation’s current crop of so-called elite performers to occasionally compete.

The athletes are frustrated, she claimed, because they don’t know exactly where the sport’s sponsorship dollars and government funding is going. As though it’s any of their business.

Hewitt is primarily a 200m sprinter who could never beat Melinda Gainsford in her prime and who, to many casual observers of athletics, typifies the heavily government-funded athlete who seems always to have an alibi for her lack of international success.

But buoyed, perhaps, by her national title 200m win last Sunday, she told AA president Andrew Forrest on the victory dais that Allatson should resign.

Allatson, for his part, insists a response to Hewitt’s tirade is not merited. He suggests Hewitt would be far better served trying to secure a place on the Olympic team – she hasn’t yet even run a qualifying time – than agitating to have him sacked.

Trying to fathom whose view is valid is somewhat difficult without a detailed knowledge of the sport.

But a colleague who does know the scene – and has been an outstanding competitor himself – maintains there are obvious inadequacies on both sides.

“There is no doubt Allatson comes across to many athletes as arrogant and unwilling to listen or compromise.” he says.

“He keeps insisting athletics is on the right track. Yet the sport is broke, going nowhere, is way down on numbers and, since Cathy Freeman retired, has had virtually no public profile.

“At the same time, too many of our athletes believe they are far better than they really are.

“We have only one world champion at present and it is no coincidence that she and her coach are the only ones willing to adopt the same sort of spartan training regimen which Herb Elliott undertook before becoming unbeatable.

“But the greatest indictment of the overall state of Australian athletics is that Steve Moneghetti can come out of retirement at 41 and win the national 12km title.

“Or that the current South Australian open 5km walking champion is an 11-year-old girl.

“Compared to Australia’s cyclists – who train far more assiduously, compete whenever possible and virtually ignore constant injury – our athletes are a cossetted bunch of prima donnas who can’t handle the heat of top competition. As the Athens Olympics will show,” he insists.

Little wonder that the sport is in such deep strife and may be even further diminished by the reduced funding which would follow a dismal Athens output.

Yet, rather than working positively to restore and promote it, all the elements seem intent only on sledging each other. What a destructive farce.

The Lee Troop response

I am writing to you in response to your terrible and quite disturbing article in the Advertiser on March 4th that is shown below.

You have called myself and my fellow athletics team mates as ‘Prima donnas’, that are on track to let you all down.

You talk about us ‘letting you all down’, well my friend, it is people like you that have let us; the athlete down.

I have just spent the last 4 years rebuliding my career. At Sydney in 2000, I ran the Olympic marathon and finished 66th. Up to 23km I was in the lead pack until I tore my rectus abdominus muscle (Stomach). Despite being in excruciating pain, vomitting blood, I still finished. Where were you?

I then battled the next 2 years with the trauma of Sydney and injury after injury and contemplating if my efforts were worth it. Why? Well it was people like you that made me feel worthless. You typify the “back slapping, love a winner” mentality that at the time I could not deliver.

I completed the Olympic journey for my country and for my efforts got my return airflight back home to Victoria. While I was injured I made no money and was not supported by my governing body.

I finally returned back to the world arena last year and finished 17th out of 103 competitors at the World Championships.

This year I am back training harder than I ever have. I have not been injured in 2 years and I have not missed a day of training since April 19th 2002. My aims this year are to break Deek’s marathon record in London on April 18th and finish in the top 10 at the Athens Olympics and you have the cheek to call me a ‘Prima donna’. I ask the question again back slapper, where have you been?

I finally realised that in this world of Australia, you are on your own. We all cant be a Freeman or Thorpe and it is not through my lack of trying.
I often wonder whether getting a secure job of working 9-5pm is better, as I am soon to be married, have a mortgage, have to pay bills, put food on the table etc.. and being a team member does not provide that. There is plenty of funding for team sports that are world champions but only compete against 6 or 7 countries and even the worst AFL footballer (16 clubs x 40 on the list = 640th player) who probably won’t play a game this year, still makes a minimum $45,000 for the year. You then compare that to athletes who get hardly nothing that are the best in their state and country and are probably in the top 20 of the world that have to compete against over 200 nations. Sure we get a international airflight, massage, physio etc.. covered, but again it does not provide for us to survive.

Get a job I hear you ask. Well who would employ someone that spends 6 months of the year away training/racing. It is the old ‘quid pro quo’; Get a job, travel and train less and underachieve OR take a chance and train full time. You then back yourself that one day you’ll make it and not have to be 30 years of age, sitting at home wondering whether going back to Uni to get a qualification or getting a job is not too late, and hopefully you can start to build a normal life and hopefully not die with nothing.

I don’t ask you for a handout, but to respect the fact that not only myself, but other athletes are going without and trying the best that they can. If alot of us are not making anything financially and our own countrymen don’t respect the efforts we are putting in, then why continue? Inadvertantly, we are paying out of our own pocket to represent this country, represent selfish individuals like you that could not care.

Athletics is the hardest sport (along with soccer) in the world due to its mass participation and competitivness. Again I am not making excuses but giving facts. For some of us athletes, payment would be gratitude not abuse and humiliation!

I use an example of Sydney 2000. Thorpe wins a gold medal in the 400m. How many competed? Moneghetti finishes 10th in the marathon. How many competed? The fact that there were 3-4 times the amount of competitors for Moneghetti; on a comparative scale their efforts would be even, but a guy like you would see Thorpe the victor due to the medal.

I constatnly speak at schools and the attitude of some of our youth is appalling. They think that winning is the only thing. I try to show that it is the effort.

I sir, have faced my demons and survived. Regardless of whether I achieve my goals this year, I know I am not a ‘prima doona’ and definitely know that I am NOT letting anyone down. People can be proud of a athletics team that are full of Aussie athletes like me, that will do this country proud in 23 weeks time. They owe it to themselves for the efforts over many years that they have put in and the sacrifices financilly, socially etc.. they have made too.

At least now I know that I can stand on my own two feet and if I do not perform to the publics expectations that despite being disappointed, I will not be broken. I know who supports me and I know who will be there when I cross the line on August 29th regardless of position. Where will you be?

Our sport is in turmoil and while some of us are trying so hard to get ready and peform, people like you are tearing it apart.

I have taken offence to this appalling story and hope that our paths do not pass but I do challenge you to spend a week with me, while I train and prepare for the upcoming Olympic marathon. I am currently up at Falls Creek logging up to 230km’s a week for the upcoming London Marathon and paying for it all out of my own pocket. Come and see whether I am a ‘prima donna’!

Lee Troop
Marathon Runner