The thing about medals, is that you get to see someone step up onto a dais to receive one.
Don’t get that with fourth place. Or personal bests. Or gutsy efforts.
Another thing about medals is that, in some cases, a lucky official from the medal-winner’s nation gets to present them. That’s win-win: two people who think the medal could not have been one without their own, special input.
We’ve had a great example in the national debate this week about how even the most outlandish allegations get swamped by the tsunami that is categorised as the ‘he said-she said’ debate.
The very day our politicians packed their bags and went home, we got another timely reminder – namely, how very quickly the sports funding debate in this country boils down to the ‘medals’ debate.
The Sports Minister, the Australian Sports Commission and the Australian Institute of Sport no doubt thought they were exceedingly wise in choosing the day after Federal Parliament went into summer recess to announce the new high-performance plan, “Australia’s Winning Edge 2012-22”.
And doubly clever in staging the announcement at the MCG – the Melbourne Cricket Ground, St Peter’s to the nation’s sporting Vatican, a venue that reflects our glorious sporting past while continually updating itself to accommodate its sporting future.
Sports Minister Kate Lundy is a sport participant; ASC chairman John Wylie is a prominent businessman and chairman of the MCG Trust; both Sports Commission CEO Simon Hollingsworth and AIS director Matt Favier are former international athletes. So, as you would expect, there is a lot of good in the new high performance plan.
But no sooner had it been announced than the plan was reduced to a blueprint for winning more medals (Olympic, preferably; Commonwealth will do; world championships, harder to win than Commonwealth, but not as prominent in our national sporting psyche, are ok).
This, along with being presented in the context of addressing our “failure” to do better in London, frames’ Winning Edge’ in very difficult, if not downright impossible, terms.
Consider this: ‘Winning Edge’ purports to be a 10-year plan. If it was really framed as a result of Australia’s London performance, that’s a 10-year plan knocked out in just on three months. Why can’t Gonski, the NDIS people and the Murray-Darling Basin planners work that fast.
Indeed, now that they’ve knocked over the sport plan, why not get the Winning Edge team onto national productivity. I’m sure they’d soon have that back up to speed.
Australia’s failure in London was overwhelmingly due to the drop-off in success in the pool, offset to some extent by more than expected medals in sailing. It’s sadly predictable that to the extent that there has been any public analysis, it has been of the ‘what can we learn from sailing’ type, rather than what happened differently for swimming between the successful 2011 world championships and the London Olympics. (A cynical take on what other sports could learn from sailing might be to continue to deny most of the rest of the world the facilities (water) and resources (boats) to participate.)
And from where does the notion come that there’s this swag of medals waiting to be won if we’re just a little “smarter” about preparation. The lesson about the big Olympic sports, and many of the smaller ones, is that the spread of medals now goes much wider than it ever did, making it correspondingly harder to win a growing share.
I’ve never perceived any causal relationship between ‘better’ preparation and actual outcome, especially when it comes to relatively small numbers of medals. I’m sure that occasionally you can identify a piece of sage coaching advice, access to a superior training facility or extra medical/para-medical support as one of the reasons an athlete or team went from finalist to medallist, or medallist to gold medallist, but equally sure you can waste a lot of time and money trying to duplicate this success.
On hearing and reading the simplistic framing and interpreting of the ‘Winning Edge’ plan, I couldn’t help but recall the reporting of an earlier plan, this one concerning athletics. That would be the controversial decision some year back to offer the position of high performance coach/director to Ekkart Arbeit.
After a bruising debate, chiefly around the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the GDR, the offer to the former east German coach was withdrawn. I still remember the report on ABC News that lunch-time:
“Australia’s athletes have been left without a coach, following the decision etc, etc . . . ,” the report ran, conjuring an image of athletes from hammer thrower to sprinters, to distance runners, to high jumpers wandering aimlessly around a track (presumably at the AIS) waiting for someone to come down and coach them.
Our sport doesn’t work like that. Never has.
Fortunately, the thinking behind ‘Australia’s Winning Edge’ might be a little more relevant to high performance than that among those reporting it.
I hope so.