coates Is being Australian really so much about gold medals?

There are many groups in our society for which I have sympathy. Homeless people. The disabled. The elderly. The mentally ill. People who are struggling financially to feed their children. People with chronic illnesses or disabilities and those caring for them. Teachers. Childcare workers. Social workers. Carers. Nurses.

If there is money being handed out, I personally believe all these people who deserve a larger chunk of the federal budget.

Olympic athletes and Olympic sporting organisations? Not so much.

Which is why I was so surprised at the reaction of Australian Olympic President John Coates last week when the independent Crawford Report into sports funding was released and presented to the government.

If your eyes are glazing over at this point, please stay with me because this isn’t actually a post about sport. That would make me glaze too. This is actually a point about something deeper. It’s about what it means to be Australian.

I have no idea how that cliched sentence found its way into this debate. Oh actually yes I do. It’s because John Coates used it to try and bolster his claim that Olympic athletes are the most needy group in Australia.

This is despite receiving $500 million of government funding since 2003.

Background: here are the top line findings of last week’s report.

 Is being Australian really so much about gold medals?

OK – the most important things you need to know for the basis of this post and to understand why John Coates and Olympic athletes and bureaucrats are so pissed about the Crawford Report is that it doesn’t recommend any decrease in funding.

However (this is key), it has rejected the AOC’s request for AN ADDITIONAL $100 million PER YEAR for the next 10 years.

Read that last sentence again in case you didn’t catch the numbers. So the Australian Olympic movement asked for $1billion of EXTRA funding from the government in the next decade and when the report suggested this was a bad idea and that that money would be better spent on grass roots sport at a community level. That means building infrastructure like cricket pitches and netball courts in our local areas.

IMAGINE THAT.

This was John Coates’ extraordinary reaction in a press conference the day the report was released:

He began that press conference with an even bigger dummy spit, snarling “This is the last time you’re going to see me because if the government takes the recommendations in the Crawford Report, Olympic sport will become so unimportant that your news editors won’t bother sending you along to press conferences like this.”

Right.

I listened with interest over the next few days as the debate raged among sporty people (of which you’ll be shocked to learn I am not one).

Many were surprised by the level of outrage from the Olympic community. “Clearly these people are not used to hearing no very often” mused one non-sporting media commentator while another pointed out “Let’s not forget that the Olympics are a commercial enterprise that are all about making money. Let’s not pretend they are some altruistic exercise in patriotism or charity.”

Possibly the part of Coates’ outburst I found most troubling was the way he labeled the idea of not wanting to win a gazillion Olympic medals ‘un-Australian’.

As the Sydney Morning Herald said in its editorial on Thursday: “Beware anyone who seeks to win an argument by branding their opponents as ‘un-Australian’.”

Totally.

From the other side of the pitch, sports journalist Jacqueline Magnay wrote an editorial in the Fairfax press that was scathing of the report and backed John Coates’ assertion that it was down-right un-Australian:

coates2 Is being Australian really so much about gold medals?

The panel has totally misread the nation’s love of the Olympics and the pride of beating bigger countries on the international stage. Its members have not understood Australians’ expectations that from out of nowhere, an archer (Simon Fairweather), a pole-vaulter (Steve Hooker), a hurdler (Sally McLellan), can inspire, shock and awe.

They clearly can’t remember the embarrassment of not winning one Olympic gold medal in Montreal. They think – bizarrely – that finishing in the top 10 is good enough. They talk of sports that inspire the spirit of Australia – but list many that have such little international interest that they are mere blips on the global scene, sports that no one without an Australian passport would recognise – AFL, surf lifesaving, rugby league.

Is it so embarrassing not to win more medals than countries which are ten times our size? Is it so bizarre to be happy with a top 10 performance which is still punching extraordinarily high above our weight?

I watched a lot of the Beijing Olympics. Pretty much all of it, I think. The opening ceremony was on the TV during my labour and in my hospital room after I gave birth and in those early sleepless and hormonal weeks at home with a newborn, it was all I could watch because there was no plot to follow and it was on seemingly 24/7.

I enjoyed it at the time but could I tell you a single name of any Australian who won a medal? Could I tell you where we were on the medal talley or how many golds we got?

I could not.

Did it make me feel more Australian every time we won? Um, I don’t think so. Sure, I was happy when an Aussie won and hearing the national anthem made me a bit teary (did I mention hormones?) and a bit proud. But I also get very proud and teary watching news coverage of fire fighters or people who devote their lives to saving animals.

I felt extremely proud and teary when I watched the press conference by the surgical teams who separated siamese twins Krishna and Trishna last week.

coates3 Is being Australian really so much about gold medals?

This idea that those moments of national pride – and let’s be honest, they are fleeting MOMENTS – when an Australian wins a gold medal are worth hundreds of millions of dollars MORE in funding just doesn’t ring true for me.

Did you know that every gold medal Australia wins at the Olympic Games costs us at least $15 million?

Holy shit. What could we do to make us proud to be Australian if we diverted some of that money into medical research? How proud could we be if we diverted some of that money into helping the most destitute and vulnerable people in our community? How proud could we be if we diverted some of that money towards increasing wages for the professionals and volunteers who take care of those vulnerable people?

I’ve long been frustrated and uncomfortable about this endless link between sporting achievement and national identity. I roll my eyes every time another Australian of the Year is named and it’s a sports person. I cringe at the CONSTANT sycophancy and praise heaped on sports people and the way they are forever lauded as heroes.

Heroes? Really? Because they can jump high or run fast or swim a long distance? How does that make you a hero? Unless you are doing a charity endurance event like all those wonderful women and men who run or cycle hundreds of kilometres across Australia to raise money for a particular cause….how does being highly physically capable make you a hero?

Who does it benefit REALLY? I’m not saying this aggressively. I don’t want to denigrate anyone. That’s not the purpose of this post at all. But I am so often left baffled by this adulation of sporting ‘heroes’ who really only benefit themselves and their own extraordinary drive to be The Best in their field. And then if they’re successful, they get sponsorship money on top of that. Which they keep.

Of course it is their choice if they want to dedicate years of their lives to swimming or pole vaulting or synchronised swimming or kayaking or ping pong. But I guess I’m wondering why that should be valued so much more highly than those invisible groups in our society who get no sponsorship and no billions of dollars.

I’m also wondering why if we’re a country with such an obesity problem (we are), why we wouldn’t be funneling more money into the grass roots community sporting bodies and facilities as recommended by the report? I sincerely hope that is what happens when the government responds to the report next year.

The fact that John Coates and sporting journalists and Olympic athletes and officials are so OUTRAGED by the idea that we should accept Australia being ‘only’ in the top 10 countries in the medal tally instead of the top 5? At a commercial event that happens once every four years?

Well, that must be very rarefied air they’re breathing up there on Planet Olympia.

What do you think?

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