Australian athletes used to mock swimmers as big fish in a small pool. No longer; the pool is huge, and deadly, too. — Greg Baum, Sydney Morning Herald, Jul 30, 2012
Sport is a well constructed pathology in Australia, and pathologies have a habit of going awry. This is particularly so when it comes to that other unfortunate failing – the tendency to predict the future. With the Australian 4x100m relay team, the gold was as good as minted for them. From the sporting academy to the commentary box, it was decided.
It was a wonder that they even turned up to the pool – their names were inscribed, noted, documented for posterity before the fact. Australians, despite coming from the second driest continent on earth, pride themselves on being adapted to water, natural “water babies” with greater strength than Poseidon.
The entire apparatus behind the “non-victory” of the four swimmers – led by James “Maggie” Magnussen, reinforced the pathology. There were “tactics” and “strategies” being cooked up by the geniuses of the swimming cabal. Psychologists had been employed to probe weaknesses. In the end, the French, Americans and Russians did not seem to pay much attention. They had other ideas and they, in the end, got the medals (gold, silver and bronze respectively).
The Australian commentators were stunned. Their research into the teams had been amateurish at best, negligent at worst. Evidently, swimmers who are not Australians don’t have names on Channel Nine, an ignorant monster that has monopolised Olympic coverage with a foul parochialism. (Yannick Who? Where did Nathan Adrian spring from?). Even after the event, the names of Amaury Leveaux, Fabien Gilot, Clement Lefert and Yannick Agnel seemed like creatures of inscrutable mystery. They were simply not mentioned, the invisible horrors who had dared trounce any Australian effort. Such behaviour is contemptible, and suggests an inability to respect opponents, let alone know the threat they pose in the pool.
The coaches were bamboozled, and it was almost as if they shared a direct phone link of self-delusion with the commentators. Head coach Leigh Nugent called the relay defeat “a bit of a disastrous result”. His only hope was that Magnussen would “bounce back”. The swimmers, not exactly a picture of articulate grace at the best of times, were speechless.
The pathology of Australian sporting achievement also has another dark side – denigrating performances of worth that do not necessarily lead to a gold medal. These are, as one SBS journalist claimed, “minor” medals barely worth a mention. With such a pernicious disposition, it’s little wonder that Emily Seebohm dissolved before the camera in an interview after failing to win gold in the 100m backstroke final. “It was hurting a lot and I don’t know what went wrong.” Silver or less, it seems, is never good enough.
Australian journalists have attempted to immunise readers and spectators from the reality that has descended upon them: Australia is not sovereign in the pool. The gods have failed. As a result, other tactics of the pen are coming into vogue. Greg Baum, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald (Jul 30), found an entire malaise of defeat at work. When Australia’s sporting ambassadors perform poorly, it is always a comfort to know that Great Britain is doing just as badly – if not worse.
“Once, there was something in the water in England, and it was losing. England was famous for losing, often but phlegmatically and graciously. Inopportunely, the bug has returned, just in time for the Olympic Games, and it is proving to be virulent.”
That view was made all too clear in the commentaries about the swim in non-Australian presses. The Los Angeles Times barely mentioned the Australian threat – it was, shall we say, irrelevant, a battle ultimately between a hungry French team and an ambushed American outfit. The French proved to be the exterminating angels of the pool, truly magnificent in their stealing victory. Michael Phelps was cranky enough to be humbled by silver. But the most stunned were who felt entitled to the trophies to begin with. To them go the spoils of a richly deserved defeat.