Like all decent Australians, I love a winner. So naturally the Olympics is an exciting time for me, as the entire nation sits enthralled before their television sets, eager to discover who our new heroes are. Already in these Games we have had reason to laud the magnificent achievements of Mack Horton, the women’s 4×100 relay team, the women’s rugby sevens team, and of course plucky young Catherine Skinner, the best advertisement for shotguns since my cousin’s wedding.

Yes, the Olympics is the time to celebrate all that is best about the Australian spirit, so it’s ironic that it also gives rise to the feeblest and most wretched of national impulses: the elevation of failure.

As I mentioned above, I love a winner. And the great thing about winners is they come first. That is, they do not come second, and they sure as hell don’t come third. And yet every four years at Olympics time, alongside the rightful reverence for our gold medallists, we find ourselves caught up in the deeply unedifying practice of congratulating those of our countrymen and women who have, by any reasonable standard, shamed us all by falling short of excellence.

Apparently, according to the snivelling sycophants of our sporting media, I am supposed to be “impressed” by Australian archers coming third. I am supposed to be “proud” of my compatriots claiming bronze in the pool. Well, those Australians who believe their country doesn’t belong on top might be willing to let themselves feel this way. I say no way.

Let’s be very clear about this: gold medals go to winners. And by definition, all those who are not winners are losers. You can contort the language as much as you like to create nonsensical constructions like “winning bronze” or “winning silver” or “there is no shame in losing”, but what I’m talking about here are the facts. And the facts are there for all to see: the men’s relay team was beaten. The archery team was beaten. Those synchronised divers were not as synchronised as the synchronised divers who won the synchronised diving.

They know it, too. Is there anything so pathetic and vile as a bronze medallist? At least those who finish fourth or below have the decency to slink off into the shadows where they belong, sparing the rest of us the sight of their loathsome inadequacy. But when a minor medal is attained, they stand up in public, grinning like idiots, flaunting to the world their wilful denial of reality, the only clue to the truth — the truth they will not admit even to themselves — in their hollow, hunted eyes, the deep sorrow and completely justified self-loathing hiding behind those mendacious smiles.

Why does it matter, I hear you ask in the whining voice of a born loser? It matters because we are a small country fighting for relevance on the world stage, and we will never gain international respect until we learn to stop settling for less than the best. How can we enter trade negotiations with China, or defence treaty talks with Indonesia, when foreign leaders are smirking at us and making snide remarks to each other about how easily pleased we are? How can we demand a fair deal from the world, when we won’t even demand elite performance from our athletes? “We don’t need to offer them much,” other nations’ diplomats will chuckle to themselves, “they’re the kind of country who’s happy with bronze”.

It can’t go on like this. We have to decide: are we a nation of winners, or are we a nation of prideful incompetents, too busy patting ourselves on the back for failing to bother figuring out how to succeed? It’s time for the media and the public in this country to restrict the plaudits and the praise to gold medallists only, and to direct at all other competitors harsh, unstinting criticism. It is for their own good. Or if not exactly for their own good, at least for our own enjoyment. But just because it’s fun to abuse an Olympian doesn’t mean it’s not also the right thing to do. So let’s do it: let’s all work together to make sure that by Tokyo 2020, bronze medallists are as ashamed of themselves as we already are of them.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey