Day six of the Olympic Games and, let's face it, Australia's results have
been less than inspiring. The much-touted men's 100m relay team got lost in
the pool, the Opals went down to France, defending champions Crawshay and
Brennan in the men's double scullswere left behind in the semis, golden
girl Seebohm got it all upside down when she swam faster in the heat than
in the final and Magnusson has been a bit hit and miss.
The one shining exception is the gold medal winning performance of the 100m
freestyle relay girls. But there's a limit to how much inspiration a nation
can get from one gold medal. It certainly won't carry us through the next
11 days. Channel Nine editors and millions of sleep-deprived Australians
are desperate for a few more shining exceptions, a few more gold medals.
So what's gone wrong? What's changed since the glory days when Australia
dominated in so many sports despite being one of the world's population
minions? Why don't we still punch above our weight?
Before I answer THAT question, I need to take a deep breath because what I
am about to write is tantamount to treason in our sport-loving nation. Here
Our athletes are too soft!
There, I said it. Our athletes are too soft. I said it again. As my inbox
beeps like a fire alarm in an oven, I will try to explain myself.
While I am a big supporter of funding for sport and think the Australian
Institute of Sport do an awesome job, I fear our elite athletes
are molly-coddled, encased in a protective bubble full of experts and
minders. At times that's exactly what they need but they also a chance to
James Magnusson wasn't the only one this week to put his poor performance
down to a lack of sleep thanks to a chronic case of the jitters. There was
talk that Seebohm was so nervous she didn't eat on race day and that some
athletes are so addicted to social media that they're listening to what
their "friends" are telling them instead of focussing on what they need to
do to win.
I'm no sports psychologist but to me this all points to a lack of mental
toughness. Our athletes are just not in the right head space to deal with
the pressure of Olympic competition. When the stakes are high you need to
be able to control your nerves, manage your time, avoid distractions, get
some quality sleep, eat properly and perform your best. Let's face it, in
the world of elite sport, this is basic stuff.
I firmly believe that "doing it tough" tests an athlete's resolve and weeds
out the people who "want it bad" from those who "must have it, whatever the
cost." My question is: Are our athletes paying a high enough price for the
privilege of representing their country at the Olympic Games? One way or
another, you have to pay for mental toughness.
Much of Australia's sporting success was built on the back of people who
lived and learned the hard way, people who learned their craft with a
cricket stump, a golf ball and a corrugated water tank. I don't pretend to
compare myself with Bradman but I think my own experience as an athlete
with a disability in a low priority sport contributed a great deal to my
Back in the 1990s when I was learning how to be a ski racer I received very
little public funding. I worked jobs at home and in the US, earning money
to pay for the next season's training. My coach worked for free and there
was no one to organise or pay for travel to and from competitons. More than
once I emptied my pockets to get to a race knowing I would have to win so I
had enough prize money to pay for the return trip to my training base.
There's nothing like the threat of sleeping rough in the snow to spur you
on to brilliance!
I spent season after season lugging my skis across Europe and the US on
trains between races. When my coach was unable to travel with me, which was
most of the time, I talked my way onto other country's able-bodied training
programs and came last in many able-bodied races just to get real race
It was a struggle - financially, physically and emotionally - but I did it
because I wanted to win, I wanted to be the best in the world. I learned to
do it on my own, without Facebook friends and without a huge team of
experts analysing and advising me. I faced my fears and my nerves on my own
every day and I learned to sleep and eat when it mattered.
So, what's the answer? Tougher training? Boot camps? Greater incentives?
Should we drop our potential gold medallists in the middle of the desert
and let them find their way home?
That's not such a silly idea. Let's send them on a training camp in a
remote location with no shops, no internet access and no mobile coverage.
Make them put up their own tents, cook on a single gas burner, give them a
long drop toilet to share and a hard-arsed coach to flog them for a month.
Too tough? Oh well, I have 11 days to come up with a better solution and,
in the meantime, our athletes in London might just rise to the challenge
and bring home the gold to prove me wrong. I hope so. I will be watching