Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Average Australian Olympians

Being an Australian during the 2012 London Olympics is a very mixed experience.

We have a romanticised idea of sport as a central element of our national psyche, and the expectation that we will "punch above our weight" is ever present. This both drives and underpins an amazingly parochial television coverage, where the viewer is sped from one event to another, with barely time to place each athlete into context - and we're only ever focusing on the Australian athletes. You'll only see a medal presentation when there's an Australian on the dais. It makes annoying viewing.

Domestic discussion of the first half of the London Olympics has been dominated by perceptions of underperformance. Australia is usually pretty good in the pool, so to end the swimming program with a single gold medal performance, to a relay team, was pretty surprising. Australia's first individual gold medal didn't come until day 10 of the Olympics. Two more individual golds have now followed, so the heat is now considered to be off, somewhat.

There have, nevertheless, been some undignified media stoushes about funding for sport; about whether it's appropriate for swimmers to be partying while their team-mates are still competing; about whether our athletes have adequate psychological support. Most interesting are the conversations about whether anything less than first place (gold) is worth celebrating.

I have mixed feelings on that point. Even though it's a long time ago, I swam competitively for some years and feel I have an idea of what goes on inside an athlete's mind. On one level, just qualifying for the Olympics would be an achievement, and representing one's country an honour. Making it to an Olympic final puts you in the top tier of your chosen sport, something to be incredibly proud of. But there is a dominant stream of sports psychology that insists that, unless you focus on coming first, you won't - simply considering being satisfied with less guarantees failure. I can understand how this latter mind-set can have led to some of the crestfallen expressions of Australia's many silver-medallists this year.

However, this morning I saw an interesting statistic which I think places the issue into proper perspective.  With 4 gold, 12 silver and 9 bronze, Australia currently sits eleventh on the medal table.  A glance at the "All Time" medal table reveals Australia with 135 gold, 149 silver and 173 bronze, placing us...  eleventh.

Yes: so far this year (at day 12) Australia is performing smack on its all time average, no better, no worse.

So, the next time someone tells you the Australian performance at the London Olympics is "pretty average", you can agree with them and explain why this isn't really a reflection on anyone's performance.


  1. As an average member of the Australian populace, with a totally un-average (so I am led to believe) lack of interest in sport, I have to say that I am firmly on the side of those who say "Just to have qualified to be there is amazing! To be in the finals or, better still, to win a medal and be the second or third best in the world is absolutely mind-boggling!" What right do the media and the Australian public have to complain about being second best in the world? NONE!!

  2. Well, Liz, here I drag in the second echelon of thought: while 11th may be our all time average, most of that time we weren't spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars on elite sport development programs. There is a line of thought which insists that we ought to be doing better than an all-time average, otherwise we're doing our dough. My heart, however, completely agrees with you.


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