The British onslaught at Laoshan Velodrome in the past week — seven gold medals from 10 cycling events — has caused not so much a ripple of concern at Australian Olympic Committee headquarters as a tsunami.
The extraordinary haul has vaulted the British into third place on the medal table with 16 gold — and the likelihood of more to come in track and field — while Australia sits in equal fourth place on 11 gold, and only dim prospects of adding to that tally.
Pre-meet AOC predictions of 44 medals are now beginning to look seriously overblown. The Australian team was becalmed for most of day 11 yesterday. There were no lilting strains of Advance Australia Fair, just the growing reality that we were heading for our worst Olympic medal tally since the Barcelona Games in 1992.
So the scene has been set for London 2012, with Britain in the ascendancy and brimming with confidence, and the usually cocky Australians looking slightly deflated and down-in-the-mouth. The pooh-bahs at the AOC don’t like what they’re seeing.
As a result, the bleating has begun for more funding. First, AOC chief John Coates got in with his four-yearly appeal for greater government help. The baton was picked up this week by head swimming coach Alan Thompson who ramped up the campaign with an emotive plea. “We are on the verge of a crisis in Australian sport if we don’t get any help,” he said.
Every four years, we get a vicarious thrill when a Stephanie Rice wins gold in the pool or a Sally McLellan takes out an unexpected silver on the track. And we all sneak a peek at the medal table during Games fortnight and take special pride in Australia’s ability to mix it with the heavy-hitters. But the feeling is only fleeting, and it is only every four years. And then we get on with our lives.
I wonder, if the issue was put to a national poll, whether Australians would prefer to have a greater proportion of their taxes directed towards the Australian Institute of Sport and the possibility of winning perhaps 10 more medals in London or towards addressing more pressing social concerns, such as health and education and welfare. Besides, blaming a lack of funding for below-par performances is too easy and too convenient. “We didn’t win gold because we weren’t given enough financial help from the government’”. Or “Britain did better because they got more money”. That’s a cop-out, as any athlete from the poorer African nations will tell you.
You can’t just pour money into one end of the great Olympic training machine and, four years later, wait at the other end and expect a swag of gold medals to be spat out. Sport doesn’t work like that, or it shouldn’t. What about hard work, dedication and talent, the usual staples of Olympic success? Percy Cerutty famously took Herb Elliott to the Portsea back beach for training before he won his 1500m gold medal at Rome in 1960. Elliott would sprint up the sand dunes until he dropped. “Faster,” said Cerutty, “it’s only pain.”
Sally McLellan’s mother, Anne, was forced to work two jobs to fund her daughter’s career, and her own trip to Beijing. They’re often the sort of sacrifices that have to be made to produce an Olympic medallist.
The Australian Sports Commission is the body that distributes government money to sport. Its budget of about $250 million a year is divided among 68 sports, including 28 Olympic sports. Those Olympic sports received more than $63 million last financial year, with $60 million channelled into preparing athletes for Beijing.
Sports Minister Kate Ellis will now find herself in an invidious position. She will be relentlessly pressured and lobbied for more funding by Coates, Thompson and every other Olympic coach. At the same time, she will have to try to convince Cabinet that more Olympic medals are really a priority as the economy toys with the idea of dipping into recession.