Olympic sadness

I woke this morning (a small victory in itself) to a couple of the sadder images I have seen in sport. Initially the sound was down on the TV so I don’t know what happened to the fencer. I don’t know her name. I think she was Korean. I just saw her sitting on her own, in tears, broken.

I still don’t know the details. But I don’t really need to.

I recognised it as a moment of high culture. And no matter what the cause of it, or the explanation for  it, the culture had been impacted by the moment, by the image, by the depth of meaning it contained. For who has never felt alone. Defeated.

I do know that a scrum of coaches and officials were locked in frantic discussion which included grim faces, angry faces, frustrated faces and arm-waving. Meanwhile the shot came back to the Korean woman who looked distressed. Isolated. Upset to the core.

No-one was with her. Culturally, the moment represented the complete absence of comfort.

It was a Sartre moment. A Camus moment. An American Tune moment. A wilderness moment.

Minutes later, as the broadcaster was updating those of us still rubbing the sleep from our eyes, a new story was featured. Emily Seebohm, who will be forever young in that way that many swimmers and other child-elites are, was sobbing as she was interviewed on the pool deck, having been beaten into second place in the final of the backstroke.

Again, her precise words are not the issue, but as her chest heaved and her eyes poured, she spoke freely. I reckon she said she’d let her parents down and her coaches down. By extension I imagine that she felt she’d let everyone down. She’d let her team down and the Australian nation down. She was, for a moment, broken. She was comforted and counselled by the interviewer (Grant Hackett, if you don’t mind).

It was confronting.

The first thing I thought, “What is this community doing to its talented young?” “What is this culture about?” And “Who is served by this approach, which elevates young athletes via publicity and propaganda, creating enormous expectation?”

Who is served by this whole approach which we see briefly, but which goes on day after day, year after year? Who is served: the sports industry is served, and that includes high performance coaches and the attendant staff who are caught in their own need: results. Results which affirm their own ability as coaches and motivators, and preserve their privileged position. Who else: sports management companies. Who else: media proprietors.

And they’re just a few.

Talented young people, many of whom – too young and inexperienced to have the critical faculty to understand – are swept along by those who are so self-serving. This is not leadership. This is ego. And it can include parents.

I wonder why no-one was with the Korean fencer. I wonder why she was so upset. I wonder what she feared.

I wonder what is in Emily Seebohm’s heart now; how she really feels, and has felt.

My father, who had no public profile, who could sometimes appear idealistic and even foolish, had a simple philosophy on many matters. He believed in conscience. He believed in the pursuit of excellence, and of understanding.

Throughout our young lives (I have three brothers), which were given to ordinary everyday things – family, friends, school, sport, music and so on – Dad said, “Give your best.” And he always said, “You will know when you have given your best. Your conscience will tell you.”

He was also a believer in ‘the bad day’. A duck, or a Geelong loss, or a triple bogey on the last to lose by a shot, were all met with, “Don’t worry, there’s always next week,” and simple technical advice like, “Watch the ball.”

While this did not always ameliorate disappointment, or suffocate self-doubt, it did create the basis of a healthy approach – one which, on the basis of these few words, I still regard.

I mention this, because in all my years of involvement in amateur sport, played to a moderate level, a similar philosophy to my father’s prevailed among captains and coaches and team-mates.

So my question is: why is there a grass roots culture which is so healthy and pervasive, so encouraging, so participatory. And a very different elite culture. Where does the watershed occur?

None of this is challenging the worth of pursuing excellence and victory. It is about creating the culture which keeps it all in some sort of perspective.

The way I feel this morning I have to ask questions of the leadership. Either those directing it can’t see what they’re doing. Or worse still, selfishly, they just don’t care.





About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and footyalmanac.com.au. He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three kids - Theo13, Anna11, Evie10. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst three. His ambition is to lunch for Australia.


  1. John, your comments are so timely. I’ve found it so difficult to get excited about these Games. The swimmers – our jewel in the crown – have wandered so far away from the ideals of sport and sportsmanship that they bring shame to their families, their sport and their country. But it runs deeper than that. Can you imagine Harry Hopman’s or Percy Cerutty’s reaction to Stephanie Rice’s blog comments or Nick D’Arcy’s antics, not to mention that he bankrupted himself to avoid meeting his financial obligations. The South Korean fencer may have a reason to cry – but not our swimmers. Unless they’re public tears of shame and contrition.

    And we haven’t got around to the track & field boys & girls yet.

    Yes, it is a matter of leadership. And I’d start with John Coates.

    I would have liked to have met your Dad. It looks like he got you all off to a good start.

  2. JTH,
    RE Seebohm, I felt the same way when I heard. Second at the Olympics and she felt like she has let everyone down. I can’t imagine the pressure on these athletes – how are they expected to perform at their best with that suffocating pressure surrounding them?
    Making the Olympic team should be a badge of honour, a podium finish more so. But to feel devastated at silver just defies belief.
    I thought I was avoiding the Olympics coverage because of the jingoism and saturation/lowest common denominator coverage but now I think it’s more. Coates; the entitled members of the swim team; it’s very unpleasant.
    Unfortunately, a poor medal count will see coates call for more funding – and the Government of the day will agree.

  3. Profound JTH, but to me both fall short of the female marathon runner deleriously stumbling in the last lap of, I can’t remember which one, and struggling to the line.

    Cookie, I said earlier today.
    This is the worst start to a games since Montreal.

    Heads should roll.

    All caused by the Carbon Tax.

  4. The Black Prince says

    Not a truer word spoken for some while. I have never, and will never appreciate the pressure these young stars are under, perceived, or otherwise, and I too was astounded to hear that Emily thounght she had let her parents and the country down by winning an Olympic silver medal. I just hope there is plenty of old wise heads around Emily and co to assure them that is not the case.

    PS. As much as I love G.W. it was great to hear J.H. on 774 yesterday morning chatting sport with J.F.

  5. Black Prince, there will be tears and tantrams if you stretched my no 43 heritage top last weekend.

  6. Black Prince,
    My wife loves Gerard but she too was taken by JTH’s dulcet tones on the radio yesterday.

  7. I wouldn’t say there’s that great a cultural watershed between grassroots and elite levels of sport. Obviously the stakes are higher and the media scrutiny and participants’ agony & ecstacy is magnified. But the competitiveness I’ve encountered in sports as seemingly benign as mixed touch football is not that far removed. The only difference is there’s a few more individuals that are able to step outside the moment and see a sporting contest as something less than life and death.

    I do certainly agree with criticisms of the AOC and funding for they are merely obsessed with pouring money into whatever might reap the best medal return. And often these sports have relatively miniscule participation levels and therefore no impact on the general health & wellbeing of the nation. So essentially from the top down winning is the only thing. Now that other countries of much greater populations have woken up to our strategies and techniques we’ll soon be rocking back and forth in the foetal position again like 1976. I think John Coates has got to realise that as much as we love sport and Olympic representation is important, engaging in a sporting arms race is a giant waste of money that would be morally better invested at grassroots level and in other health programs that will tackle our population’s generally disgraceful levels of health and fitness.

    As for the C-bomb, it was interesting to hear her say that her social media obsession and the inability to focus having been convinced by the medium that she had the race won was probably the difference. I think that massive disparity between expectation and reality explains her immediate reaction. Similar but different, Magnussen’s reaction was pure shock.

  8. Magnussen worried me several weeks ago when he declared he would win.

    There is always an ‘Eric The Eel’ lurking around the olympic pond ready to steal your lime light.

    Remember Misty Hymen (only American parents could come up with that name) in the women’s 100 fly in Sydney. Not that ‘Madam Butterfly’ was anything but modest before and after the swim.

    He may well win the dash but he needs to shut up and re-focus in the mean time.

  9. Dave Nadel says

    John, Much as I agree with your father’s sentiments I think you oversimplify the world in which Olympic athlete’s live. For a grass roots cricketer or golfer a duck or a triple bogey isn’t the end of the world because you can always play another game of cricket or another round of golf next week. A Geelong loss (or a Collingwood loss) may be awful but they play again next week also and indeed for fans like us it is a lifetime commitment so even a devastating Grand Final loss isn’t forever because eventually Catters get their 2007 and Pie people get 1990. Even Cheryl and her family will one day see another Tiger flag.

    But for Olympic athlete’s there is often only one Games. Swimmers, like Gymnasts, often spend what should be their childhood and adolescence training in their sport. As long ago as the 1960s I remember seeing the younger sister of some kids I went to school with swimming up and down the Heidelberg Olympic Pool from early morning before school for hours and hours more after school until the pool closed. Her reward was to swim a leg of the relay in Mexico City. 44 years later I can’t even remember whether her team won a medal.

    Of course Emily Seeebohm should be proud of her silver medal and not feel that she has let anyone down. But she has spent her entire young life preparing for this moment and she may never get another chance so you can hardly expect her to have much perspective.

  10. Rick Kane says

    Likewise, the treatment of Leisel Jones leading up to her swim was saddening. What is it with our need to denigrate?

    Well turns out she wasn’t the tub of lard the media delighted in making her out to be and admonishing her for as well. She swam and made it to the final of the 100m Breaststroke. That’s brilliant. That’s awesome. She came fifth. That’s brilliant too. She’s the fifth fastest female breaststroke swimmer in the world. Gold might be great but surely that’s not the beginning and end of the Olympic dream or story.

    Damn me, why do we not fully recognise and applaud the endeavour of our sports people? Why can’t we even up our apparent right to cast negative views whenever we like with positive feedback? We go on and on about this person or that being the best in the world, as if being the second or fifth or eight best is immaterial. That is not a healthy perspective at all.

  11. The Wrap says

    Turn it up Dave. War is forever, Sport is supposed to replace war. It’s supposed to be the fun version. We get to live and play another day. The Olympic experience in itself should be enough. Besides, there’s plenty of World & regional Championships to get – as I’m sure Stephanie Rice would say – their rocks off on.

    I once heard Australian’s described – by an Australian in answer to a question – as not taking themselves too seriously. That doesn’t mean we don’t take ourselves seriously, it’s just that we’re suspicious of those who do – take themselves too seriously.

    In which case I’d suggest we’re witnessing – as little Johnny Howard I’m sure would say -some very un-Australian behaviour.

    Suck on that Stephanie & Co.

  12. John Harms says

    Dave, there is so much in you comment which I’d reply to.

    And btw, the Korean fencer (and I still don’t know the details of the incident) and Emily Seebohm are different stories – but both made me sad and reflective. Hence I put them together.

    I should have been clearer in my piece. I was not writing about levels of disappointment, I was writing about having a life philosophy within which something like your dream, your hope, your career, your sporting aspiration, your anything exists.

    If there were no perspective we’d all be mad as hell (in the angry sense) or be going mad.

    I think the final paragraph of your comment is arguing my case. I was arguing that being involved in elite swimming (sport) can muddy your sense of perspective. Which you have affirmed in that very comment, in the way that elite aspirations exist now..

    I contend that good leadership would help prepare for the reality. Imagine if the thousands of people who shared the dream (at some stage) to win the 100m breaststroke all really believed it would happen.

    But the again, I don’t buy the if-you-want-it-enough-you-can-make-it-happen thesis either.

    My piece is also based on the strong impression I gained that what Emily Seebohm said refelected what she really felt and thought at the time. Watch those with an interest in it pass the comment off as overly emotional and expected given the moment.

  13. “The Olympic experience in itself should be enough.”

    I guess that might be true for athletes not in serious medal contention.

    Unfortunately the reality for the likes of Emily is the difference between gold and silver can be a fraction of a second but a lifetime in the repurcussions. In the short term it equates to endorsements that alleviate financial stresses and post career, well unless you look like Giaan Rooney, then making a quid on the back of anything less than gold is unlikely.

    You can be the 500th best Australian Rules footballer and make a decent living – yet the 2nd best swimmer in the world at a particular event can be reliant on handouts and part time jobs.

    I also concur with Dave’s point – and to which Emily is grappling with now – it may be the one and only chance to reap what she thought she was destined to achieve from her life’s focus. Yes, she chose to do what she does – but I’d be bawling too. Hopefully she gets over it and comes out stronger.

  14. The Black Prince says

    Phantom, there were tears and tantrums (and some very red faces), an hour before the match when it was discovered my correct long-sleeved number 10 had mysteriously grown legs…Number 43 was returned to the bag in pristine condition and will be stretched only if you attempt to pull it over your mellon next time the Cats roll the Pies, or if their Wynyard namesake can go all the way in September!

  15. Looks like there are a couple of damn decent stretchings coming up.

  16. The Wrap says

    I’m starting to wonder if I’ve overdosed on something psychedelic and woken up on Planet Celeb. I thought Emily had gone over to London on an all expenses paid swimming carnival, albeit the most pumped up one they enter. Now I’m told she was on a job application.

    And I’m serious, I had to google Giaan Rooney. I’m glad I did, because it reminded me of that ungracious celebration that cost the girls relay team a gold medal at the Fukuoko World Championships* – when they all jumped into the pool to hug and squeal before the other competitors had finished the event. Alarm bells should have gone off then.

    Im just hope Kimmie & The Thorpedo don’t break down if/when they bomb out. The sight of grown men bawling over a broken toy that hasn’t worked in years does something to my psyche..

    * that’s right; the same Fukuoka – now that’s something to weep over.

  17. Mulcaster says

    So my question is: why is there a grass roots culture which is so healthy and pervasive, so encouraging, so participatory. And a very different elite culture. Where does the watershed occur?

    Channel 9….

  18. John Harms says

    Jeff, it seems to me that you are arguing from within the bubble. That is, using the parameters created by the bubble to srgue your case. Isn’t the idea to strip that all bare and see it all for what it actually is?

  19. The Wrap says

    Spot-on Mulcaster. When does it occur? When we elevate them to hero status beyond their maturity,

    Any channel, any paper, any glossy, any broadcaster ……….

  20. John Harms says

    Yes, but that’s only half the equation. What about elite coaches, player managers etc? Are their philosophies just mythologies created to support lopsided self-interest?

  21. Breaking news is that Hooper may be disqualified for wearing a Koorie flagged T shirt.

    That was not the biggest mistake he made. The fact that he wore it into the ring and beat a Yank is the issue. Uncle Sham will get him sent home.

  22. The Black Prince says

    If J.H. had of had his television turned up, he would have heard the following unfolding then and there…this is an extract from the ‘breaking news’ section of the Herald Sun website that was uploaded only minutes ago. Please tell me I am not the only one that feels sorry for poor Shin!

    SOUTH Korean fencer Shin Lam was in floods of tears at the ExCeL arena after the biggest controversy of the Olympics so far.
    The 25-year-old thought she was through to the final of the women’s epee when, to her horror and that of her coach Shim Jaesung, the clock was reset from zero to one second.

    And when the action resumed German Britta Heidemann, gold medallist four years ago, scored a do-or-die hit that appeared to have given her a place in the final against Ukraine’s Yana Shemyakana.

    The Korean coach furiously launched an appeal against the decision that had allowed the fight to continue and it was nearly half an hour before it was announced to the crowd – slow-handicapping by this stage – that Heidemann’s win stood.

    Shin broke down in tears for the second time and while her opponent celebrated she remained on the piste.

    The crowd was then told she was doing that because a formal appeal was being considered and if she left the field of play it would be deemed an acceptance of defeat.

    By then the bronze medal match should have started, but that faced a lengthy delay – as did the final to follow.

    Shin only needed to draw the contest in sudden death because she had been given priority – that is, the onus was on Heidemann to score in the extra minute of sudden death.

    The crowd could hardly believe their ears just before 7.40pm – nearly an hour after the incident – when they were told part of the rules was that the Koreans had to lodge money for the appeal to be valid.

    Still Shin remained on the piste, bringing back memories of fellow Korean Byun Jong-il’s sit-down strike during the boxing in Seoul in 1988. The big difference was that Shin was an innocent in all this and just doing what she was told.

    Shin Lam

    Shin’s coach claimed that the winning hit she conceded was performed out of the regular time. Picture: ToshifumiI Kitamura Source: No Source

    Just before 8pm an official came onto the piste to encourage Shin to leave, but she was not happy to go just yet.

    Another official came on to assist as she dissolved into tears again. Now there were whistles and boos from the crowd as she was led off, although the decision had still not been announced.

    As she was hugged by her coach the announcer asked for respect to be shown to the athletes and judges – and also a big round of applause for the world No.12 as she finally left.

    The coach left as well, still clearly furious about an outcome that the fans had yet to be told about.

    The final should have been staged by then, but the crowd was not able to see what happened next. The spectators had no idea what was going on back stage.

    The final decision was that Shin had lost the semi-final and would be in the bronze medal match.

    Shin Lam

    Lam is in disbelief after being controversially beaten. Picture:: Julien Behal/PA Wire Source: No Source

    Amazingly it began a few minutes later, the Korean coach saying: “We will try to calm her down, even though she is to be extremely stressed”.

    Shin somehow summoned up the concentration to take an early 4-2 lead over world No.1 Sun Yujie – every hit being roared by her new-found fans.

    With the last three-minute period to go it was 9-9, but Shin’s agony became complete when Sun took the bronze 15-11 and she was left empty-handed from a night she and the audience will never forget.

  23. Maybe we should have stayed on the field when they took our score last year Prince.

  24. The Black Prince says

    What a wonderful idea Phantom…We’d have stayed well nourished on Nev’s hearty road-kill burgers and pea soup for months!

  25. Go to training. Now!

  26. Richard Naco says

    You’re all talking Olympics: have they started?

    I don’t watch them anymore – all that rampant jingoism and win at any cost mentality has long driven me well away. I love competitive sport, but any contest where you know the results will be cast into doubt by improved drug tests in a few years time has no sense of validity for me.

    I do wonder though, now that the Missile is shown to be merely Facile, will he be adding a Delta tatt to his inner arm?

  27. The Wrap says

    Thanks for the explanation Prince. Yes, she did have something to cry about. the way she was treated was disgraceful. But isn’t that what the Olympics have become. Look, it’s older than Christianity, maybe the original ideal upon which it was based has been lost somewhere along the way. Once the drugs came into it, it was the beginning of the end.

    And yes RN, you’re on the money. it’s not just the swimmers who have behaved less than graciously. Remember the athletes, and even the equestrians had their public hissy match. And the shooter Russell Marks spat the dummy because he wasn’t provided with a double suite in the Village for him & his wife.

    Like this year’s Grand Final, the Olympics were over for some before they started.

  28. haiku bob says

    i guess the curriculum for the AIS (or any centre of sporting excellence) doesn’t include ‘how to lose’ or ‘what losing means’ or ‘winning isn’t everything’ but maybe it should.

    it’s funny. i’m watching the swedish coverage of the olympics, and we’ve got the same storylines cropping up – hyped up swimming starlet fails, tears on the pool deck, how will she recover?, worst medal haul ever. maybe the olympics is really just an international reality show franchise.

  29. Jeff Dowsing says

    I think it’s a bit late now to deconstruct what is and recreate an idyllic sporting world where athletes can compete without some kind of emotional combustion when things go awry. Not when they’ve spent the majority of their lifetime putting their bodies through hell for that opportunity to realise their hopes and dreams – at the biggest event on the planet. That cannot be stripped away, it is what it is. Those around them – coaches, family etc can only manage & encourage the best they can. Most have the athletes interests at heart, of course a few unfortunately do not.

    As for the media hyperbole, well I guess that’s why bubbles exist. But in the case of Leisel & others like Emily, apart from the more sensationalist sections of the media, the pervading mood is empathetic and if anything critical of the hysterical few.

  30. Lord Bogan says

    Phanto, I think the money from the carbon tax should be used to buy better drugs for 2016.

  31. Mark Doyle says

    Interesting thoughts John! My father had a similar philosophy. It is also interesting that you mention Sartre and Camus – I suspect that very few of the Australian Olympic team and the media buffoons have read the moral philosophy of these blokes.
    I did not see the Emily Seebolm interview and it would appear that she lacks humility. She may also be subject to the ugly parent syndrome. She should learn from another Australian swimmer who won a silver medal – Christian Spanger, who celebrated the occasion with humility. She should also learn from the humble and emotional reaction of the Lithuanian 100m breaststroke gold medallist and the Japanese bronze medallist in the same event. I suspect that her emotional reaction was in response to a loaded question from Grant Hackett.
    I believe that most Australian people see sport in terms of their philosophy of crass individual secular materialism. This attitude is enhanced by the media buffoons who see themselves as celebrities with indulgent illinformed and meaningless opinions.

  32. Dave, are you SURE that Cheryl and her family will see another flag? And can you guarantee that I’ll see a Doggies one?

    (And thanks for a thought-provoking piece, JTH.)

  33. Gigs – this year The Tiges will take out the Brownlow & the Coleman – by 2014 it will be a Premiership Pennant and the Norm Smith. As for your Doggies, keep up the heart worm tablets and a distemper booster may help. Apart from that I’d spend a bit,of time at the Lort Smith and pick over what comes in. A few pit bulls wouldn’t go astray; some greyhounds and terriers would help too.

    in light of all the above, i thought we should share some thoughts of Albert & Jean Paul. These two from Albert jumped off the page.

    He who despairs of the human condition is a coward, but he who has hope for it is a fool.

    A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.

    And from Jean Paul –

    Commitment is an act, not a word.

    Being is. Being is in-itself. Being is what it is

    If a victory is told in detail, one can no longer distinguish it from a defeat.

    Someone throw bucket of cold water over me will you.

  34. Jeff Dowsing says

    Yabby Jeans: Winning needs no explanation, losing has no alibi.

    In light of Emily, it seems there’s a fine line as to how upset or how stoic one should act (before there’s critics bemoaning a lack of care about their commitment to their ‘all expenses paid swimming carnival’).

    I also think her reaction goes to someone cognisent of the sacrifices made by those around her, and her respect for them.

    As for the fencer, I think that crossed the line to mental instability. That was indeed sad.

  35. Wrapster,

    your first couple of lines relating to the Tiges this year and in 2014

    Your not the official taster for that Sydney swat team that had the big bust yesterday. You only need to look at the stuff, not make pancakes out of it or use it as talcum powder.

  36. Me an Yore Tiger Tragik Bruvver will remind you of those injudicious wurds Mr Phantom, when the time is rite.

  37. Its all swings and roundabouts – did anyone notice the incident where the Kookaburras seamingly scored a goal and then fessed up to the umpires that it had come off a foot – at least thats what the commentators said and I’ll take their word. The tears of Seebohm were more than offset by the comments from Alicia Coutts and the respect she showed to the winner when everyone else is raising questions about how legitimate the Chinese swimmer is.

  38. Dave Nadel says

    Wrapster..and others…I wasn’t saying that Seebohm’s response was correct, merely that it was understandable. Obviously it would have been better had she responded like Alicia Coutts but given what the Olympics are, and how Australia and its media treats them Seebohm’s tears and extravagant statement should not have come as a surprise and I still believe JTH that you can’t asses Olympic behaviour as if it was grass roots sport.

    Mark Doyle – I don’t know whether Seebohm is a victim of the ugly parent syndrome but her father John played over 300 games in the SANFL. Lleyton Hewett’s father also had a long career in the SANFL however Darren Cahill’s dad was a champion player and coach with Port Adelaide and Darren turned out OK so perhaps there is no connection.

    Gigs – you are not going to like this answer, but … I do think Cheryl will see a Tigers flag because the Tigers ‘problems are caused by poor management rather than poverty and a small supporter base. (The same could be said about Collingwood and Geelong during the periods that they were underachieiving). I very carefully didn’t mention the Bulldogs, because, although I would love to see them win if it wasn’t at Collingwood’s expense, I can’t see it happening. The salary cap might allow them to get players as good as the wealthy clubs but it doesn’t addess the disadvantages in terms of facilities, coaches and support staff. Sorry.

  39. Didn’t Bracksie sink a truckload of gouged tax money into Whitten Oval a few years back Dave/Gigs?

  40. great article john. Somewhere after Montreal, which I think is when we didn’t get a gold medal, we decided we had to not only get as many medals as America, but we had to become America: no humility, no grace, no sense of proportion.

    It made my heart sink last night to see Channel Nine’s Karl Stefanovic standing in front of a banner the size of an iMax screen reading ‘Magnussen’ in bold letters surrounded by flames. Tear the bloody thing down Nine! It’s plain and simply bad for him and the team. No wonder nerves smashed him in the relay.

    I love the different sports that get limelight via the Olympics. But the hero worship (in the full sense of the word) has to stop. Cathy Freeman said that after she won the 400m gold medal she felt empty. It was nice but it didn’t really mean anything in the long run (or middle distance run). A gold medal didn’t mean anything? Sacrilege! We put millions of taxpayer bucks into that medal – and every one we get. But if it means so little to someone who was one of our greatest athletes, who really benefits from this mad race for gold?

  41. Andrew Weiss says

    John I think your article brings up many things but one in particular to do with our culture in sport. I think many Australians feel a part of other peoples success and quite often get angry or disappointed when that sucess does not come. The parents on the sideline living through the sucess of the their kids because they did not have the skill to do so when they were young. The supporters of AFL teams riding every bump, miss kick, goal, umpiring decision etc and when their team wins they have also won.

    We hear comments that this could be the worst Olympics for Australia because of the amount of gold medals that may be won. I hate to think how much pressure Sally Pearson will be under when all of Australian will be running with her next week expecting gold.

    Why don’t we celebrate personal achievement more than the actual winning of something. Last night an Australian called Kynan Mayley (i think) came sixth in the single canoe slalom. What an achievement for this guy as he was ranked 40th in the world and was not expected to make the semi finals never alone the actual final. Where is the big story of him in the papers and on websites in Australia this morning.

    That to me is what sport is about. Striving to do you best and whatever the result is your best has been achieved and it needs to be celebrated.

  42. Upfront I want to say I like sport. I enjoy the contest, the underdog winning, the records, the champions of the game, the history, people pushing themselves beyond their limits. I love the statistical records; win/loss ratios. I recognise though that sport is just sport – in the whole scheme of things it’s not that important.

    At this point in history we as a people have created something beyond what sport is about. We believe and are fed by the media that sport is important, really, really important. Through our idolising of the participants we have created something that has transcended a contest and become an end in itself.

    We analyse everything about professional sport. We seek better training methods, nutrition, diet. We look for improvements through coaching, through training and sometimes illegally through drugs. We pour mega dollars into high performance coaching, sports commissions, institutes, clothing, footwear. At every level we are seeking to gain an advantage to win the ultimate prize, to take hundredths of seconds off times or jump millimetres higher or longer, bowl or throw faster or kick longer or more accurately. (I remember watching some past Olympics and seeing the new world record of 49.99 for 100m swim. No one thought it could be done. Probably wouldn’t even get you into the final now). And of course the media is there to take pictures and comment on everything and sometimes negatively.

    I have a friend whose child is very good at cross country. They win their school event and the zone every year and have been to States several times. The state cross country is a whole new realm of life. My friend said to his child: “Do your best but if you don’t want to finish just stop; don’t do it for me. It’s only a race.” This was in stark contrast to another parent who strategically placed themselves on the course to yelling and screaming along the lines of “This is what you have worked for; c’mon; push harder, you can do it”. In my view almost ugly parent syndrome for a 14 year old. My friend’s child finished on the verge of being selected for the national titles. Amazing effort. Not sure about the other child but it certainly opened my eyes to the win at all cost attitude that drives some parents/athletes.

    Most elite athletes/sports people will go on to do much more in their life than win a medal or not win a medal at the Olympics or play in or not play in an AFL Grand Final. They will have families, do other jobs, relate to friends and family and some of them will fade into obscurity like Dave’s acquaintance at the Mexico Olympics. They will live out their lives like the rest of us earning money to pay billls, feed and raise our children – which deserves a medal in itself! Some will recognise that sport is a small part in the whole scheme of life.

    There are much bigger issues that we are not prepared to deal with on the same level of commitment that we put in to sport. What if we as a people put as much of a concerted effort into something like solving poverty or famine as we do for sport? If we refused to accept that this is normal; if we employed better and better experts to solve problems; to pour more and more money into assisting people; that there would be a poverty report rather than a sports report in every news bulletin on every channel; on foxtel you could look at the solving famine channel? What if we sent hundreds of reporters and journalists and as many photographers to India or parts of Africa or part of the Philippines,… and sent pictures back every day for 16 days about how many of them live in situations that we would not tolerate? We over emphasise the value of sport in our society and use it to distract us from the realities of life to even pretend that they don’t exist.

    I remember during the 2000 Olympics tucked away on about page 4 or 5 of the Herald-Sun a small column wide article of barely a couple of small paragraphs about a devastating flood in Bangladesh that had killed hundreds of people. The first three pages were taken up with Cathy’s gold.

  43. Andrew Starkie says

    Harmsy, as I wrote in the Olympics blog yesterday, I found the post-race reaction and treatment of Emily Seebohm both disturbing and educational. I thought her reaction on the pool deck in an interview which shouldn’t have happened out of respect for her emotional state, said alot about the pressure young athletes often feel. She showed no self-pity but was full of guilt for losing, saying she had let her parents and coach down. And, as you said, by extension, the whole country. Of course, none of us felt that that way. Simply, a young person should never be put under such pressure to succeed in any field. Whose fault is it? Her coach, mum, public, sponsors? We all need to look at that interview and rethink the role of sport in our society.

    I don’t know if you saw the interview in the ch9 studios afterwards when Leila McKinnon and her male co-host deliberately made Emily cry again by showing her the race and the pool deck interview. It was a set up. Disgusting but typical of a commerial tv station. I felt so sorry for her and so angry towards ch9 as the camera closed in for a good look at the tears running down Emily’s face. The host could hardly contain their glee. The media is so obsessed with ‘the emotion of it all’ and ‘how do you feel?’ and ‘what was your mindset?’ etc.

  44. David Enticott says

    Thanks John, this is a brilliant piece of writing and social reflection. I like what you say about your Dad (from memory a Lutheran minister). We should be celebrating the wonderful achievement that it is simply to compete at the games and to devote your life to the pursuit of excellence. I feel the same about coverage after the AFL Grand Final when everything is about the victor rather than the vanquished. To try that is the thing. Whatever happened to the old Aussie philosophy of having a go. Interesting times . . .

  45. Well Emily’s dad did play for Glenelg, so it was appropriate she finshed second!

  46. John Harms says

    I am finding the discussion here all very interesting, and it reflects the complexity of the issue, and the fact that people start with differing world views.

    To take up Andrew Starkie’s observation of the secondary interview, you got an idea of how young Emily remians in that child-elite sense when in that second interview she started talking about competing at Play Station with her younger brother.

    It reminded me of being in the dressing rooms one night at the Gabba when a young Des Headland was playing for the Lions against a young Jess Sinclair. Des’s Dad was also in the rooms and when Jess brushed past him and noticed him he said, “G’day Mr Headland” very warmly, but as if they were still all playing in the Under 12s.

    We assume they are so much older, and harder. They are not all the same.

    Noel, I think we could make your comment an essay in its own right. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Mark Doyle, I agree with your comments re individualism and materialism. The bigger crime in it all is for people to accept the current paradigm as ‘the natural way’. It is not the natural way, or just the way it is, it is a situation which is nurtured and encouraged by those who seek to benefit most from it. I also suspect Mark that both of us have an Antonio Gramsci fridge magnet holding up the AFL draw on the Kelvinator door.

    Thanks to all the other commenters as well.

  47. Andrew Starkie says

    Harmsy, on the child-elite topic, I recall as a teenager being in the Camperdown rooms at the Reid Oval Warrnambool before a Hampden League finall. Paul Broderick was the wunderkid of the day and as I watched him warm up, I stared at him and realised that even though he was the size of a man he was still a kid. I think he was about 15, roughly my age. He was under a heap of pressure that day and didn’t play well which brought a lot of criticism which I thought was very harsh. I also recall feeling the same about Wayne Schwas and Leon Cameron, then teenagers, as they played in finals in front of big crowds under huge expectation. Schwas was criticised for pulling out in a gf aged 15 or 16. Bloody harsh.

    I’m relieved I never had that child-elite burden hanging over my head (note sarcasm).

  48. Great piece John, it’s good to get some perspective on the Olympics, hold a mirror up to the behaviour of elite athletes and ask “What does this say about ourselves?”I too watched Emily’s race and her heats. I was taken with her vitality and excitement especially through qualifying; like following a game of footy in which you don’t support either team yet find a reason to in the running.

    In her defeat I was reminded about cricketers dismissed for 99. It’s all about the 1 run they didn’t score rather than the 99 valuable ones they did. We’re so fixated on the ultimate prize that the media and coaches condition athletes to believe this is the only thing that is valuable. Our elite sporting administrators coax international athlete’s to represent Australia just so that they can win us an Olympic medal (gold preferably). What message does send to the general public and other athletes?

    The true value in sport isn’t about the 1 run that wasn’t scored or the 50cm that Emily just couldn’t hold on to, it’s in the endeavour, excellence over a sustained period (not just 1 minute),respect for the contest and your opponent, lessons to be taken and applied to life’s journey, whatever that is. Some perspective please.

  49. All good stuff. Now about Emily – she says now that maybe she shouldn’t have spent so much time before the race on Twitter & Facebook. I can go along with her on that on the public honesty score – and she’ll carry that for a long long time – but you’d have rp ask what her coaches – read mentors- are doing. Where was the – come along Emily, put the iPad away now Lass, you know tomorrow’s a school day. For crying out loud, if it means so much to them, where’s the commitment to the cause. Can you see anyone at Hawthorn daring to answer their herograms while Clarko is preparing them for the GF?

    This whole campaign in the pool to date has been a debacle. If the swimmers are under enormous pressure because of the importance of this particular carnival, where are the coaches nursing these apparently fragile egos through the meeting?

    As for the Olympics, they’re so corrupted it’s very difficult to take them seriously. Fortunately we only have to put up with them every leap year. Celebrating sport & sporting achievement one thing. Pandering to bread & circus are something else altogether.

    And while we’re on it,

  50. john weldon says

    You make sense JTH.

    I despair for organised professional sports. We no longer value effort and giving one’s best. We are graceless in victory and we treat the defeated like pariahs. We deny the necessity of losing. We respect only the triumphant. And we flog the guts out of any situation, no matter how sad if there’s a buck to be made.

  51. Mark Doyle says

    I think you bloggers should watch the TV show ‘The Beat of London’ for a bit of comic relief and good music during the Olympics – it is reasonably good entertainment even for an old fuddy duddy like me.
    John, I liked your reference to Gramsci – a great man. I have enjoyed wearing my ‘Hammer and Sickle’ red T-shirt around town since buying it in Viet Nam last year. I also got some new fridge magnets in Viet Nam of some of our socialist heroes.

  52. JTH – interesting thoughts. I agree that this obsession with winning is not the natural way – to a certain extent.

    Whilst the coaches and the sporting institutes encourage and promote the high end sporting mentality for their own good, they are really just feeding off what already exists. Its human nature to strive, to get advantage, to win. It gets unhealthy when the striving and effort becomes so all pervasive that it consumes a person’s every living moment. At this point it grows into something of crucial importance. An athlete HAS to believe that what they are doing is their “dream” and worthwhile, otherwise they wouldn’t get up at 5am to go for a run.

    I’m not sure I like an athlete who lost to conclude that they have let people down, but I understand why the athlete would have this frame of mind. And I don’t think we can blame entirely those who run elite sport. We have to partly blame human nature itself.

  53. I’m really enjoying this discussion.

    I wonder whether it would be possible to speak with coaches and officials and get close enough to get a sense of the attitudes towards player development. I’ve heard seasoned journos complaining about the negative attitude towards such Wolfeian-style reporting (access for 20-minutes is hard let alone a day, or a night, or both). And even if sufficient access was granted, the article written would have to be high quality at the risk of being a gossip yarn.

    If there are coaches, etc, who set standards for athletes with their own personal gain in mind, surely there are those at the elite level who take a different approach, ones who incorporate perspective checks in their daily lessons?

    After reading this, I’d like to hear from them.

  54. John – happy with your suggestion.


  55. Matt Quartermaine says

    Great piece JTH, written from the heart as always. However, a thought from left field: Is it our shock of seeing Gen Y, the generation who have never been told “no” and that each of them is special, finally hitting our screens? I read an interview with a bouncer who reckoned the worst customers were the Gen Y’s because if they were refused entry they threw a tantrum. Are we seeing tantrums (tears or rage) from Gen Y because they haven’t won?

  56. “It was a Sartre moment. A Camus moment. An American Tune moment. A wilderness moment.”.. You forgot a ‘Richmond moment’.

  57. Matt Q, I think you’re on to something. And if you had a suspicious mind, and/or experience of Gen Y behaviour, you’d be asking yourself by now; was Emily’s ‘let everybody down outburst’ as real as it seemed? Or just a learned response to cover what in days of yore would have been called a temper tantrum. And as for Nick D’Arcy’s response as he climbed from the pool after his uninspiring semi final swim,, it was so pat you’d swear it had been rehearsed.

    I can’t remember the exact figures, but the gist of a survey I’d like to allude to in reference to Matt’a comments found that something like 60% of teenagers interviewed believed they were going to be famous. Now I’ll accept that the survey might have cut across the audience ‘Australia’s Go Talent’ as they left the auditorium, but the figures, as I reach nursing home age, frightened the living daylights out of me. Half the people catching the 109 tram down to Lennox Street are going to be celebrities. I’d better get a new autograph book.

  58. Matt Quartermaine says

    I wonder if it’s also older folks (like myself) perception of Gen ? Is the outpouring of emotions highly upsetting to our non “touchy feely” generation? The blatant public expression of emotions and their positive benefits to the psyche are a blight on society.

  59. I wouldn’t go that far Matt. Ronal Dale’s iconic expletive circa 1950s, ex-mouth guard ,would have to qualify as a spontaneous emotive outburst wouldn’t you say? And if you got between him and the pigskin he was certainly touchy feely. but I take your point about the generation gap.

    I’ve never been able to source the quote – there’s been several attributions – but it’s one of my favourites –

    Evolution is assured as each generation is betrayed by the next

    I don’t know; maybe texting can become addictive. Buddy Franklin should be able to tell us.

  60. John,

    Thought I should share this one with you, written a couple of years ago, but oh so relevant this week:



  61. I think this quote from Edward’s blog above nails what has been troubling me about this lengthy thread. (I hope my heresy doesn’t get me excommunicated!)

    “So often, we drop in on athletes in the most important moments of their lives without having any concept whatsoever of the journey that came before, let alone the journey that will follow their sporting career. ”

    The Almanac community fancies itself as a knowledgeable body when it comes to sport. However, I suggest that while we might be knowledgeable about footy, like most of the nation, we “drop in” on the Olympics for a fortnight every four years, without having any interest in Olympic sports or their participants in between.

    So to start making judgement calls about society’s distorted values, overbearing pressure of expectations or, even worse, generational weakness, on the basis of fleeting glimpses of elite athletes in the most important moments of their lives is, frankly, poor argument based on minimal evidence.

    Why should the values of an Olympic athlete should be those of “amateur sport, played to a moderate level”? The dedication, over countless hours, that Olympians must put in to compete on this stage cannot realistically be governed by an attitude of “do your best and if you have a bad day, never mind, there’s always another chance”. Ultimately for these performers, a lifetime’s preparation can be justified or wasted in a few seconds.

    I’m no apologist for the Olympics. I despise the pseudo-fascist hype, the drug cheating, the jingoism and so I largely agree with many of the sentiments being expressed. However, whatever our views of the Olympics themselves, we cannot avoid the fact that any athletes who make the Games, in many ways, have chosen to put the rest of their lives on hold. It’s high, high stakes. Surely, when if their life dreams are dashed in such sudden, dramatic circumstances, we can simply interpret their outbursts as the natural responses to shock that they are. No more. No less.

  62. Tanking in Olympic sports to get priority draws. That’s un-Australian.

    Hang on, no it’s not

  63. Good one Stainless. Thanks for the link EOP. And thanks Harmsie for getting this whole show going. It’s the airing the Olympics had to have, eh?

    Not to worry Stainless, the fires of The Inquisition have long been extinguished. I think we all understand the Olympic spirit that has seen us as a nation punching above our weight over the years, and the stories behind the commitment of those who have helped build that legend. If I start on names it will be never ending. The John Landy & Ron Clarke statue in the precincts of Rod Laver Arena says it clearly enough. I think it’s been the celebrity status so willingly adopted by the entire swimming team – and that includes coaches and administrators – that has stuck in everyone’s craw. (The mainstream media are not excused here either, but in explanation, they’re there to give the masses that for which they clamour – but that’s another story) In our minds, the mental breakdowns of the high profile swimmers after not reaching their self-promoting goals has been less than the stoic response that has underwritten the Australian character from our convict and pioneering beginnings, through to our development as a modern world nation. That’s why they’re getting the rounds.

    Now that we’ve nearly got the show ponies out of the way, we can focus on the more mundane sports, including Damien Hooper’s sweet science. Competing for his nation, he fights under two flags but in only one T-shirt. As have many before him. Don’t worry; there are plenty of good stories to come out of these Olympics yet. There always is.


  64. Andrew Starkie says

    Phantom, very funny.

    Stainless, I don’t think anyone is suggesting our athletes should be satisfied with mediocre results. Nor do we expect them to be as composed as Atticus Finch when they don’t bring home the bacon. I haven’t read or heard any criticism of J Mag’s post relay interview from the public, however, the media have slammed him for not giving them perfect copy seconds after not achieving the goal he has dedicated his life to. By the way, his post race interview this morning was very composed and gracious. He appeared rehearsed, but he handled himself well. It must have been so tough for him. It gave an insight into the pressure he has felt. I know pressure is all part of what he does, but i felt sorry for him. It’s all a bit out of control.

    My concern is with the media exploitation of athletes and the overwhelming pressure placed on them by sponsors, the public etc. You may have understandably glanced over my rant about the treatment of Emily Seebohm by ch9 after her final the other day. Have you noticed the Comm Bank’s J Mag commercial isn’t being shown as much now? I know, I know, I’m taking the moral ground and I know the media is the media and it behaves this way every day and wouldn’t do so if the public didn’t lap it up. But there is concern about the circus this time around.

    In relation to the suggestion some at the almanac don’t know what they’re talking about, well, guilty as charged. If expertise becomes a criteria for contributing to the almanac, I’m out. Having said all that, I think the same principles and values apply to all sport.

  65. John Harms says

    Stainless, I would hope no-one holds back on this site. I hope the contest of idea is rigorous, and that thinking is clear. Like many threads such as this people argue from different perspectives, starting with widespread assumptions, using different logics or otherwise, expressing rational argument, emotion blah blah. Hence the thinking and the discussion can be all over the place – and will be.

    I don’t doubt the athletes’ dedication, nor deny them any attitude at all. They can think what they like, have the motivations they like and so on. And the cash and celebrity can be part of that.

    I looked at a distressed young woman (they call themselves girls) and it made me feel sad. In my sadness I asked myself what have I just seen, and what does it mean.

    That pondering (article) has led to an array of responses.

    I reckon it’s better when all people (sportspeople included) stand outside of their situation and understand it. To understand what has influenced them, who they are, and why they choose to do the things they do. That puts us all in amuch better position. If they are too young to have done this, then I would ask what the leaders around them have done in this regard. Indeed, that’s what I was asking.

    If people want to tie up their sense of self in the pursuit of swimming, or shooting hoops, or kicking a footy, that’s up to them. The young among them need to know what the implications of that are.

    I felt in the Emily Seebohm moment that it went beyond disappointment and into the realm of a yuong person whose whole reason for being had been removed (however temporarily).

    Perhaps I was the one over-reacting.

    But one thing of which I am confident is that I saw it in broader terms: I saw it in terms of culture, and human existence, and not from within the bubble of the national sports industry where some are sold down the coal-mine.

  66. The Princess Royal’s daughter didn’t appear to be crying – till her mum kissed her after she gave her the medal. Or was that a reincarnate of Michael Jackson?

  67. Steve Fahey says

    Great piece John, a very thought-provoking topic and thread

    I agree with your father’s philosophy but really agree with Dave’s first contribution that there are many years of effort that go into this event which occurs only once each four years which you might only get one go at (it would be great if someone could drum up the stats on the percentages of Olympians with one, two three Olympics etc). Thus, reactions are strong.

    I don’t think it has changed as muuch as others seem to think. I remember as a young kid watching Munich and Montreal and watching the tears and bitter disappointment of those who hadn’t lived up to the expectations of themselves and/or others. And while the consequences of not performing up to the desired standard are a lot bigger commercially now, what do we think it would have been like for an East German athlete who had to return home after perceived lack of success pre the fall of the Wall ? What type of pressure would that have been ?

    Other than the commercial consequences, the other big change is clearly social media and the Internet. When I was kid, the only athletes who the public felt they knew were the megastars, Ralene Boyle, Rod Laver, John Newcombe etc. Now every Tom Dick and Harriet has a Twitter and/or blog and we feel like we know these people. So I don’t have a problem with Seebohm’s initial reaction or that of Magnusson after the relay. Yes we would love for them to be happy with their achievement and magnanimous to the victors. But is this realistic for all of the people all of the time ?

    Clearly this morning after his second by 0.01 Magnusson was trying to put on a brave face and be grateful and happy for silver. Of course he would be burning with disappointment inside. I think that perspective often comes with time, and he will one day be rightly immensely proud of it, regardless of what he does in the future. Elite performers simply have to have very high levels of competitiveness and the vast majority have a high degree of selfishness – they have a team around them, it’s all about them, and it takes a reasonabkly rare individual who can retain their pre-elite perspective once they step inside that bubble.

    At Beijing, my favourite moment was when Hooker cleared his winning jump. It wasn’t the jump per se, but the sight of the Russian who had just been relegated to the silver medal position, standing there applauding Hooker’s jump. Absolutely spine-tingling. but destined to always be the rare exception.

    Finally, I reckon the Games are like everything else in life – there are bits that can be thoroughly enjoyed, bits which you loathe, and most moments fall in between. We choose what we focus on. I’m not encouraging blindness to the follies of the Games or indeed of the entire Olympic movement, but appreciation and enjoyment of the bits which push our buttons in all the right ways. There are a lot of them.

  68. pamela sherpa says

    I don’t like the way athletes are interviewed immediately after an event- be it footballers or swimmers. I feel as though we are invading their space. They deserve to have a few minutes to themselves to indulge in their own private thoughts.
    The other thing that bothers me is the lack of consideration given to the winners of the events by some of the athletes and the media. Has anything been written about the swimmer who put in a blinder and beat Seebohm ? What was her name ?Of course those who come second will be disappointed but acknowledgement of the winner post event should be foremost in the minds of the competitors and media.

  69. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Fascinating article and posts which some had entirely different perspectives but generally were well thought out . A point not made in general was the apalling behavior of the male swimming behavior . I liked the idea of including at the , AIS teaching ,
    Appropriate ways to deal with so called defeat but it is also a fair point that we as sports fans don’t really get the whole Olympic bit of it only coming around every four years and may result in the person not having another chance
    Brilliant thought provoking thanks , JTH

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