Oct 30, 2016

Remember Rio? You know, the Olympics?

It has been two months since the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics and it is difficult to recall a Games having so little impact on this sporting nation. Prior to the Games there were the usual concerns with building progress and social problems in a foreign nation. People were scared of the Zika virus, pollution in Guanabara Bay and Russian dopers. During the Games the sports proceeded as usual – there were medal winners, there were losers, there were dopers and there were world records. But did the Games resonate with the Australian public? And has there been any lasting impact in Australia from the Games of the XXXI Olympiad?

Disclaimer: the author of this article is not without bias. The tyranny of distance from the mainstream of Australia, and an ever-increasing scepticism of the Olympic has continued to grow and blossom. What follows must bear this in mind.


Nearly 30 years have passed since the men’s 100m final at the Seoul Olympics. Australians have become far less naïve in the intervening period. Almost any medal awarded at an Olympics comes with a burdensome proviso. The Russian scandal prior to the Games did little to restore faith in the purity of the sport. In fact, the scandal was met with an indifference and an apathy that spoke of a deep-seated distrust of the cleanliness of Olympic athletes.

When speaking of the men’s 100m, it is worth recalling that the entire board of Jamaica’s Anti-Doping Commission was forced to resign at the end of 2013. This was due to the “public perception” of the existence of conflicts of interest and a lack of drug-testing due to insufficient staff to complete a rigorous regime. It took until mid-2015, only a year prior to the Rio Olympics, for JADCO to begin performing blood-testing. The World Anti-Doping Agency have been impressed by the improvements to JADCO since the start of 2014, but it is an interesting story in lieu of Jamaica’s dominance of the shorter track events.

Criticism of anti-doping efforts should not be limited to nations with limited resources. At the Rio Olympics, 500 fewer tests than intended were carried out by the World Anti-Doping Agency. In some sports, including weightlifting, no blood-testing was carried out at all. The IOC’s report describes an under-resourced and under-funded anti-doping regime perhaps more indicative of a poor island nation. Not an organisation that turns over $6billion each Olympiad.


Australia’s long-held obsession with swimming can be easily explained – we have traditionally won medals in the pool. We love winners. But swimming hands out far too many gold medals – a total of 32. In athletics, there is gold medal for the 100m sprint but not the 100m hopping or the 100m running backwards. And the rest of the world is catching on – all you need is a couple of great swimmers (Michael Phelps?) and you can take home a veritable mountain of metal. In Rio, Australian athletes disappointed in the pool.

The David Crawford-led Independent Sport Panel Report estimated that each gold medal was costing in the order of $15million and each medal $4million. The report noted that the Australian Sports Commission overwhelmingly directs monies toward elite Olympic sports. It makes sense that we would spend money on sports, like swimming, where we think we have the best chance of winning medals. But where does the distribution of funds become corrupt? As an example, water polo received as much money as golf, lawn bowls and tennis combined. More government money was given to the archers of Australia than the cricketers, despite there being over 100 times as many cricketers. It is easy to imagine swathes of golfers, lawn bowlers, tennis players and cricketers jealously ignoring the Olympics.

Participation rates and funding is a controversial area. Smaller sports can quite rightly claim that basing funding on participation will result in a narrowing of possibilities. But when the funding is for the “elite” of that sport rather than the rank-and-file participants, this argument hangs by a thread.

Let’s talk fencing. In Australia, excepting those fine, upstanding persons who erect partitions, there cannot be too many fencers. In comparison to golf, it must be a relatively short road to the top. Fencing, not the one with barbed wire, gets an amount of funding from the Australian Sports Commission as it is an Olympic sport. Now the Australian Fencing Federation (check out their website, there are fewer gates than expected) spend that money disproportionately on the “elite” fencers at the expense of your average, garden-variety fencer. Our “elite” fencers didn’t make the Rio Olympics. To turn an argument on its head, no new fencers were inspired. Perhaps a few lost interest. So why exactly are we funding our “elite” fencers? Send them to the Northern Territory, there is a heap of land up here that could use a fence.


My fellow university alumnus Kim Brennan wrote an impassioned article for Fairfax wondering why Australia wasn’t proud of our athletes. Although she raised some excellent points about national pride and a better Australia, Brennan misses the mark. For a start, Australia is proud of our athletes especially on an individual level. Our Olympic athletes are already supported. But valid concerns are being raised about the level of that support. To be blunt, if somebody wanted to subsidise me so I could be a professional exerciser I hope that I would be absurdly grateful and wouldn’t be comparing myself to a rural doctor, single parent or research scientist. I hope that I would recognise the limits of my inspiration. And I would be thanking my lucky stars my hobby wasn’t in the arts.

Prior to the Games, Chef de Mission Kitty Chiller said the 410 Australians at the Olympics were aiming to win 15 gold and 45 medals overall. Australia’s best golfers didn’t bother with the Olympics and, due to Chiller’s hardline and almost martial stance on team rules, neither did our best tennis players. Subsequent to the Games, Chiller was proud of the “culture” established within the Olympic team. This is not a comment on the rights or wrongs of Nick Kyrgios’ or Bernard Tomic’s behaviour, but Chiller’s “culture” was unfortunately not one that won medals in spite of her stated aim. So what is it that the Australian Olympic team is trying to do? Are we aiming to win medals? Or are we aiming to have a team of people who toe the line and do as they’re told by rigid team management? Or are we aiming to have the perfectly legitimate and reasonable goal of a team that doesn’t necessarily win, but our nation is proud of the way they competed and represented us nonetheless? Note – this last goal probably doesn’t require an Australian Institute of Sport, in fact it would possibly be more achievable without it.


The embodiment of Chiller’s culture was, somewhat paradoxically, gold medallist Chloe Esposito. I don’t pretend to know a great deal about Esposito, but coincidentally our most recent modern pentathlon champion also embodies the Rio Olympic Games for me.

In Esposito we have, from all reports, a lovely and humble person who almost nobody had heard of prior to the games. She participates in one of the Olympic’s most obscure sports, made up of five mostly-obscure events. This sport has a shockingly low participation rate in Australia. With much self-sacrifice, including financially, Esposito invested an extraordinary amount in the Olympics, aided and abetted by the largesse of the Australian Sports Commission. She wins gold and there is a momentary kerfuffle. Less than two months later if you mentioned her name, the response would most likely be “Chloe who?”. Further, despite being a stellar person and a gold medallist, Esposito will have made almost zero lasting impact on the participation rates of young Australians in modern pentathlon. Wow. I can’t wait for Tokyo in 2020.

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