Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Thorpe and Hackett signal need for Australians to move on

Homebush stadium, via Wikipedia
The Sydney Olympic Games has been for over a decade held as that event’s paragon. Those two weeks in the early Southern spring brought together a truly elite swarm of athletes across all quadrennial disciplines; Australia’s organization combined the pageantry of Brazil with the efficiency of Germany. It has set the standard by which subsequent events will be measured.

Every Games since has been dominated by individuals, or more correctly, by Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. Phelps’ aquatic omnipresence has him at 18 gold medals, while Bolt has taken a grand total of twelve races to utterly captivate nearly seven billion people.

Australia’s Olympics, however, had stars who promoted their sports without completely dominating them. This egalitarianism spurred Cathy Freeman’s defining moment amidst several images lasered into her nation’s sporting consciousness. Also, the Australians owned the pool to such an extent that their record medals count of 58 seems unlikely to be bettered.

The pool hasn’t seen such a worldwide depth and spread of quality. The medals leaders include swimmers from the Netherlands, Russia, the US and Australia – while the largest cheer of the tournament came for Eric the Eel of Equatorial Guinea. The green and gold also boasted two national icons – Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett.

Life has not been kind to this pair, nor to Australian swimming, in the years since their retirement. Hackett has led a highly-publicised life that may or may not involve drinking regularly to excess; in his recent autobiography, Thorpe has admitted as such. Before today, the most recent news concerning both saw them publicly tired and emotional. The news filtering through today that Thorpe is in intensive care and likely will never swim competitively again must be heartbreaking for him and his fans.

They are two more former elite athletes who have struggled without the structure provided by their training. Like so many, they have defined themselves by their sport – not necessarily by results, but by the process that helped them make the most of their natural ability. That process has been found wanting because despite both men completing tertiary education, in the years after fading glories they have been found relatively unprepared for life as celebrities.

And Australia must take some of the responsibility for their post-pool failure to thrive as well.

Always the Lucky Country, in 1990 Prime Minister Bob Hawke impolored Australi to adopt a new moniker – the clever country, based on a reimagined education system that nearly doubled those students completing secondary school. Despite later ailing during “the recession we had to have”, the profits of this Australia now has a financial system so resolute that it survived the 2008 Global Financial Crisis with only mild-to-moderate difficulty and boasts social infrastructure the envy of most of the world. Much of this predated the Hawke government, but some pieces are laid the foundation for the picture of Australia we now carry around on our collective driver’s licence.

When it bore fruit during the mid-90s and the early part of this century, a peculiar piece of that infrastructure helped Australians adopt a new identity – one of a country blessed with athletic gifts. The Australian Institute of Sport, created in 1981 in response to a poor Montreal Olympics (and to be honest, even Montreal had a poor Montreal Olympics) created a number of prescient elite training and performance plans that simply allowed Australian athletes the facility to do what those from competing nations did not. Australian swimmers benefited most from this, as did the cricket team, who utilized the offshoot Australian Cricket Academy.

The absolute apex of Australian sport was those Sydney Olympics. The nation ranked fourth overall in medals won, first in medals per capita and produced three nation-defining performances: Freeman, Grant Hackett in the 1500m freestyle and Ian Thorpe’s 400m triumph. The Australian cricket team was soon after voted as the Laureus World Sports Team of the Year and locals began to believe the hype that we were truly a nation who punched above their weight – no matter what the sport. As victories mounted, so too did the fame and expectation.

Since that time, Australians’ fortunes have steadily decreased as the world caught on and caught up. Nowhere has this been more pronounced than in the pool, where the most notable Australian swimming performances at the 2012 London Olympics involved Stephanie Rice’s bikini, Thorpe/Hackett comeback rumours and a wildly backfiring Stilnox party. Aussie cricketers have only recently begun an upswing after five years’ beholding to teams whose youth development protocols now parallel or supersede Australia’s own.

We, as a nation, have struggled to cope with a comparative lack of success. After losing the Ashes unexpectedly in 2005, the youthful replenishment of elite Australian cricket took a detour to retrieve the urn before our men in white collapsed in on themselves in 2009, lifted out of indulgent reverie only briefly in 2011-12 and again with the advent of coach Darren Lehmann.

The generation that benefited most from the AIS is now long retired. Those who finish their education in Canberra now compete against similar programs the world over, some of which don’t allow the same focus on a future outside the sport.

The thing is, that Aussies don’t really like failure, as a generation of success has told us that we don’t have to accept it – because failure can be legislated for.

Australian Soccer was forced in the early 2000s to perform a root-and-branch audit of the game’s fortunes in the island continent. Taking a cue from the moderately-successful A-League, Cricket Australia – via that monumental lemon, the Argus report – did likewise. Basketball Australia, plus- or minus- it’s critically ill Conjoined twin the NBL, has performed three suchlike reforms yet still struggles to present anything like the the functional league of the mid-1990s – which was unsurprisingly filled with AIS grads.

Swimming Australia is attempting to do something very similar, brining in the best Australian swimmers of the 21st century to “mentor” their poolside desecendents.

Even in the most dominant sport in the country, administration conquers all. The typical (only?) response to a struggling AFL club is to re-administer the football department, invest in youth at all costs, build through the draft and get basic club infrastructure in the right place. The pursuit of perfect culture has become a cult.

A generation of unparalleled success across many sporting domains has proven one thing to Australians – we don’t like losers, and look for reasons why we are losing. And sometimes there just aren’t any, because there are athletes and teams who are simply better than those Australia is able to produce.

As a populace, Australia became accustomed to funding athletes and watching them turn into dull-glittering red-dwarf types. For years Australian sportsmen and women have been mostly accessible and down-to-earth almost to a fault (even if, like Grant Hackett and Ian Thorpe, the brightest stars sometimes struggle to readjust to society). Much of Australia still regards the retiring Rice, Hackett and Thorpe amongst our nation’s most heroic, despite their best days being competition success a decade hence.

Their inherent visibility in a nation barely scraping 20 million people places so much pressure on those few global elite that their reintegration into anything resembling a normal life is extremely difficult – they are the most visible objects in a remarkably small fishbowl. While the likes of Duncan Armstrong, Sarah Ryan and even Liesl Jones might be able to settle down into the normalcy of career, relationship and parenthood. Could the same be said of Thorpe and Hackett, Hackett and Thorpe*?

Australia has always been a nation subject to its geography. We have a small populations based in only a handful of major cities. This makes our true world-beaters visible on a stage anything like that  It is for that reason that Australia’s fixation with sporting success – and our identification as a country who wins things – must be dialed down. We can no longer claim sporting triumph as part of our identity because that time is fading. It is also unhelpful to those stars who helped us take our place in the worlds various arenas.

Instead, Australians should claim the ingenuity behind the Australian Institute of Sport. We should embrace the clever country initiatives and the 1996 gun reform that has saved so many since its institution. There’s more to life than sport. Grant Hackett and Ian Thorpe found this out the hard way; it may be just as difficult a lesson for greater Australia.

* I had to get this one in.

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