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Olympic gold versus sportsmanship

By Geoff Crocker - posted Friday, 10 August 2012

Australia usually punches above its weight at the Olympics, particularly in the pool events but not this time in London despite a swimming squad touted to grab a sack of gold. Instead, unexpected failure won tears and the ugly face of poor sportsmanship.

It’s not so much that our swimmers weren’t good enough, it was that they were not at their best on the day—Magnussen swam nearly two seconds slower than his qualifying time. Why were they under par for the biggest and most trained for swim of their lives? The answer to that will keep the Australian Olympic Committee busy. One answer is that our Olympians lacked focus—media distraction.

Nick D’Arcy is no stranger to controversy. His determination to swim at the 2012 Olympics became a choice of disdain or folk law in Australia, if nowhere else and many believed he should not be part of our swimming team, judged on issues of his not so private life. His determination, however, is beyond criticism.


A foreign media search about D’Arcy’s swim that ended hope gained scant or no coverage. Not so for our media which plastered his failure in most publications, replete with armchair bagging of the wicked scoundrel that got his just deserts. He was sent home because of a deal made with Olympic officials after he and Kenrick Monk posed with a couple of pump-action shotguns and a pistol in a U.S gun shop that went to Facebook.

Not until Emily Seebhom and her mother spoke of “an obsession with Twitter” did we understand the side effects of social media. Stephanie Rice confirmed her lack of focus came from trying to maintain close contact with her 80,000 fans. It takes much to service 80,000 well wishers.

Enter 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen who blasts everybody out of the pool with a five second slash from her personal best, her last lap near equaling that of Michael Phelps. Coaches, competitors, and armchair experts cried “drugs” igniting terse words at diplomatic level between China and the U.S.

Forgotten is the long list of record smashers like Mark Spitz, Dawn Fraser, Shane Gould, Michael Phelps, Ian Thorpe, and Susie O'Neill who thinks the work ethic of our swimmers is less than a decade ago. Ye Shiwen has been drug tested every which way and comes up clean.

Maybe the Chinese have an undetectable secret or maybe Ye Shiwen works harder and doesn’t have the distraction of social media—yet! And maybe it’s not Ye Shiwen’s priority to be a media show pony eager to publicise everything from what she wears, fingernail color, what she eats, and intimate details of amorous romps. In fact, Ye has no social life. That's what it takes today.

Ye Shiwen’s coaches Ken Wood and Denis Cotterell are Australians who train their champ in Queensland. No great advantage there, one might think. Enter, big money. Ye’s coaches are reported to pocket bonuses for medals, $250,000 for gold. Wood told Associated Press his monthly pay cheque for coaching Ye is four times more than training Australian swimmers.


Money gets results. Australia dumps about $1.2 billion into sports, with $23 million going to high-performance sports—not enough, it seems. Although China’s sport funding might be a state secret, it’s rather hypocritical of us to accuse them of buying medals. Most countries do, including us. The Institute of Public Affairs reported that every medal Australia won at the Sydney Olympics cost taxpayers $1.5 million each.

The question for all Australians is: do we spend whatever it takes and have the Olympics become unaffordable? No staging country ever made money, the losses for most were staggering with debt spread over more than 30 years, as it was for Montreal 1976. The London Games were to cost $3.6 billion; it’s now $14 billion and counting. The spin-off bonanza for commerce has not happened, hotels down 20-30 per cent—merchants crying, says the BBC.

For competitors the stakes are entirely different. When athletes stand on centre podium watching their flag is raised, emotions dwarf all else, until the sponsors line up for product endorsements. Michael Phelps is estimated to earn more than $100 million over has career. Ian Thorpe’s earnings at 20 were reported at $3.8 million. Conversely, Stephanie Rice had her “loaned” Jaguar pulled through a “rude” Twitter. 

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This article first appeared at Menzies House on 9 August 2012. 

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About the Author

Geoff Crocker is a regular contributor to The Menzies House.

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All articles by Geoff Crocker

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