Australian Olympians and the Winning Edge

Australia Rio 2106

Since the Rio Olympics wrapped, Australian media have been criticizing the Aussie athletes for a failure to succeed.

The Australians brought home 29 medals, finishing tenth in the overall Olympic medal tally. This ‘dismal’ result prompted the US-based Wall Street Journal to get in on the action, declaring that the Aussies ‘stunk,’ falling well short of WSJ’s pre-Olympics prediction.

“We were long on the Australians, forecasting 17 gold medals and 48 overall. They stunk, winning just eight gold medals and 29 overall, which is four fewer than the U.S. won just in the pool.”

Nevermind that the Aussies choose their athletes from a pool of 23 million people while the US is working with nearly 320 million.

The Australian media is fired up because there was a lot of hype surrounding these games, the first since the Winning Edge strategy was introduced. After its ‘poor showing’ at the London games (where Australia also finished tenth), Winning Edge was implemented to increase the medal count, promising a top 5 finish at Rio.

By 2022, Winning Edge hopes to achieve the following:

  • consistent and sustainable success for Australian athletes and teams on the world stage
  • greater levels of accountability for performance results
  • improved governance structures and contemporary reporting and monitoring of performance
  • engaging, uniting, inspiring and motivating all Australians.

Basically, Winning Edge hit the athletes with KPIs: We give you this money, you bring home some gold. The catch is that it’s a taxpayer-funded program, and the bulk of the cash was pumped into big sports like swimming and cycling.

Now, of course, the people (and by this I mean the media) are asking what went wrong. Where’s our return on investment? Here’s where those accountability measures kick in, with cost-per-medal breakdowns showing us exactly how much money each medal cost the public.

The average Rio medal cost Australian taxpayers A$11,434,910. The most budget-friendly gold medal came from a surprise win in the pentathlon, at a price tag of A$190,000. A bargain compared to the A$31,118,652 the rowing gold cost us. With the actual cost to produce a gold medal hovering around A$770, it’s no wonder people (again, the media) are worked up.

Seoul Olympics

Remaining homage to Seoul’s 1988 Olympics.

Columnist David Penberthy has one theory on why the Australian athletes were such ‘failures’ in Rio this year: perhaps the competitiveness has been bred clean out of their generation:

“A generation which has been stripped of its mental toughness by a mollycoddling culture where we give kids trophies not for being good, but for merely turning up. Where failure is met not with constructive criticism, but a hug.”

Penberthy goes on to cite ‘namby-pamby-excuse-making […] from elite athletes who failed to perform,’ suggesting that we should do away with the medals and the podiums since those apparently aren’t the things that matter. (I didn’t catch any constructive criticism on how athletes could improve their performance, but maybe I skimmed the piece too quickly.)

I suspect he’s referring to comments like those from swimmer Bronte Campbell. Campbell and her world-record-holding sister Cate were expected to take the top spots in the 100m freestyle, but didn’t medal at all – individually. They did take gold in the 4×100 relay, but apparently that’s just not good enough.

Bronte’s response to the media:

“It’s not about winning at the Olympic Games, it’s about trying to win. The motto is ‘faster, higher, stronger’, not ‘fastest, highest, strongest’. Sometimes it’s the trying that matters, so everyone that got out there and pursued their dreams is a little bit of a victor tonight.”

What a screaming example of namby-pamby-excuse-making. I presume Penberthy would prefer a response like one her sister gave, referring to her individual Rio performance as ‘possibly the greatest choke in Olympic history.’

Because if you can’t be the best every single time – if all you can promise is to try – why bother to play the game at all?

Beijing Olympic stadium

Beijing’s Olympic bird’s nest

Well, hang on.

Let’s go back to the final tenet of Winning Edge: engaging, uniting, inspiring and motivating all Australians.

Is the only way to do this through winning?

At the risk of sounding like a woman who is less interested in the result of the Games than its human interest angle, I’d like to think that there’s more at stake than bringing home the gold. Bronte Campbell’s generic statement sounds like an excuse, but it’s still true. Everybody wants to win, but not everyone can; does that mean they should all go home?

The Olympics that stand out to me the most are the ones I watched as a kid: Barcelona in ’92 and Atlanta in ’96. Yes, I hoped that Team USA would win gold but even when they didn’t, I was engaged, inspired, and motivated. The Olympics brought the world to my living room, showed me flags I’d never seen and anthems I’d never heard. It reminded me that your team doesn’t win every time.

Making it to the Olympics isn’t quite the same as ‘turning up’ to a junior soccer game. It’s a fucking achievement. The Refugee team didn’t win any medals, but I doubt anyone would accuse them of under-performing (and anyone who does is an asshole). Of course medals matter, but the armchair Olympians aren’t the ones who carry the wins and losses with us for the rest of our lives.

As if Bronte Campbell doesn’t care about winning. We all know what it’s like to lose; it sucks. It makes you want to win even more. She’s probably disappointed as hell, but it doesn’t mean she should beat herself up in interviews. For a nation that disparages the tall poppy, Australian media was very quick to cut individuals down when they didn’t ‘succeed’ on a world stage.

Sydney Royal Easter Show 2005

Sydney’s Olympic Park, later home to the Royal Easter Show.

I understand expecting a return on investment, but treating the Olympics like a corporate enterprise really takes out some of the inspiration. I get it – even the Olympics is a business, and it takes a huge amount of people (and money) to make it work. But if winning is the only way to measure success, somebody please explain Ryan Lochte to me.

And what, exactly, were ordinary Australian taxpayers meant to do with ‘their’ medals? Did Winning Edge draw up a timeshare program? Or is it an honor system, reminiscent of the book ‘The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,’ where a shared pair of jeans unites a group of friends?

Maybe each taxpayer could keep a medal in their home for a day before passing it to a neighbor, except now there aren’t enough to go around and we’ve all been robbed of the opportunity we paid for. THANKS HEAPS YOU ATHLETIC FAILURES. NEXT TIME I’M INVESTING IN JAPAN.

Winning Edge specified how to measure success, but it failed to define how or why the taxpayers benefit when hard-working Australian athletes earn these medals, only suggesting that when the athletes lose, we all do. It ignored the fact that the benefits of sport can be found even when you’re not standing on a podium.

I’m glad that as a ten-year-old in 1992, I was oblivious to the expectations governments place on their athletes. I watched the Olympics to see people do things I could only dream of doing, with or without money and resources. Maybe it’s classic generational mediocrity, but I don’t watch just to see certain athletes win; I watch to see them play the game.

2 Responses to “Australian Olympians and the Winning Edge”

  1. I was living in Australia during the 2008 olympics when Australia did really well, especially in swimming (the only sport I really watch) and when I didn’t recognize any of the names for Australia in this years swimming, it’s shocking to see how many have “retired” versus on the US side, how many participated in that olympics who are still around today. Based on that (and that alone, I can’t say or notice for anything else), it’s surprising how fast Aussie swimmers burn out.

    • That is interesting – when I watched the Olympics as a kid I always associated Aussies with the pool. The team this year was really young (from what I could tell) though I think at least one of the Campbell sisters has been in the Olympics since 2008. Still, if they are burning out that quickly it seems that it would be indicative of something more.

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