Australia's Olympic failure: a wake-up call for Team GB

Aug 7, 2012
Neil Clark

Only 12 years since the euphoria of Sydney, Australia is way down the Olympic medals table

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LEGACY, legacy, legacy. We are told daily by Coe, Cameron, Boris and countless BBC commentators that Team GB's success in the current Olympics will inspire a new generation to even greater success at future Games.

Well, I'm sorry to a bit of a party-pooper, but we shouldn't be getting too carried away just yet. The experience of Australia, who hosted the Games just 12 years ago, should act as a reality check.

The Sydney Games of 2000 were hailed as "the best ever". As in London now, the host nation rose splendidly to the occasion. Australians, led by the great Cathy Freeman and Ian Thorpe, won 16 golds and their total of 58 medals overall saw them tie for third place with China.

No one doubted that the 'legacy' of the Sydney Olympics would be even more success for Australia in the future.

Twelve years on, it's a very different story. This morning, Australia is languishing in 19th place in the medals table - behind Kazakhstan, Belarus and the Netherlands, having won just two golds to date. Things are so bad that the Sydney Morning Herald has felt obliged to embrace arch-rivals New Zealand - who have three golds - as part of 'Team Oceania'.

It's important to look at what went wrong for Australian sport after the euphoria of Sydney if Britain is to avoid a similar fate.

Cuts in funding in the past few years have been cited as a major reason for Australia's Olympic decline. "We've been down on the sort of financial support that we were accustomed to when compared with the financial support that's coming through from other countries, particularly here in Europe," Kevin Gospor, Australia's senior member of the IOC said.

Australia's swimming boss Leigh Nugent meanwhile has blamed Australian society for not producing enough top sports stars. "We live in a society where people look for the easy way," he said.

Tom Switzer, editor of The Spectator Australia and a former Australian schoolboy athletics champion, believes the problem is arrogance. "Too many athletes believed their own publicity, especially so during this age of social media. But perhaps London 2012 has been the failure Australia had to have. A lesson in the danger of hubris and the wisdom of modesty."

Another issue has been the "brain drain" - the departure of some of Australia's best coaches to the competition. As Paul Kent of the Sydney Daily Telegraph points out, Aussie coaches are "giving Asutralians black eyes all over London" -  none more so that Dennis Cotterell, who is rumoured to have earned half a million dollars coaching the Chinese swimmer Sun Yang to his 1500m and 400m freestyle victories.

In fact, says Kent, "foreign athletes trained by Aussies have won 14 gold medals so far in London - if they could form a nation in their own right they would be fourth on the medal table".

What happened to Australia could easily happen to Britain. Right now, of course, politicians are falling over themselves to say how much they love sport and what a priority it is for them. Lord Coe, who sat next to David Cameron at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday night, related: "He was very seized by the need to build on everything he was seeing in that stadium, whether it was the extraordinary performances of our teams, the ongoing challenges of getting more young people into sport... He is very seized by the need to leverage legacy from every nook and cranny of that project."

The Prime Minister might be a Sport Billy today, but how long will his enthusiasm last? This after all is a government committed to cuts and inevitably the politics of austerity will have an impact on sporting provision.

London's new Olympic Stadium is the focus of attention today, but the stars of tomorrow will need more mundane local facilities if they're to reach the top. And local amenities are under serious threat.

As The Guardian revealed yesterday, despite the government pledging to protect school playing fields, the Education Secretary Michael Gove has said 'Yes' to 21 out of the 22 requests to sell-off pitches in the two years since the coalition came to power - with the 22nd request currently under consideration.

Local authority cuts - caused by a drastic reduction in central government funding - mean that councils are under increasing pressure to either sell-off or close sports centres and other facilities.

In Horsham in Sussex, the Conservative-run district council wants to close the Broadbridge Heath Leisure centre, which includes an athletics-track.

Olympic gold medalist Sally Gunnell, who trained at Broadbridge, has joined the local protests. "I feel very passionate that we're trying to inspire people, we're trying to have the whole legacy of the Games and we're not able to do that without an athletics club and a track," the 400m hurdles champion at the 1992 Barcelona Games told the BBC.

Pressure to build new houses is also putting green spaces - where children can informally hone their sports skills - under increasing threat.

If this government really wants to deliver the sort of sporting success millions of Britons will now expect at future Games, it will mean reversing several key policies - refusing to sanction the sell-off of any more school playing fields, prohibiting local authorities from selling off or closing sports facilities, and halting the cuts in the school sports partnership.

Yes, lottery funding is important, but the government is the key player.

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I was asked to sign a petition this week from a single mum who 5 year old is mad about football. She can just about afford the charge for his 5 a side sessions and the cost of getting him there. But they are going to charge VAT on the sessions. I wonder what they will spend the tax on? The Olympic legacy perhaps?

I think there could be a good support from the government if they are intent on keeping their promises to promote school sports and stop the selling off of playing fields. The local swimming pool here is financed usually by by the people of Kingsteignton in Devon raising money and it has been as terrible struggle to keep it open this year. I think the National Lottery money was well spent on promoting clubs etc., and it would be good if these funds continued indefinitely to promote sport such as we have seen with cycling, gymnastics, sailing and all the other enthusiastic clubs who have done so well. Seeing the young gymnasts when BethTweddle arrives on the scene, they are absolutely gobsmacked. I would think this is the same in all clubs and it should continue long after these game, It would be interesting to know what others may think about my suggestions.

Unfortunately Brenda the promise to promote school sports is a hollow one as prior to the olympics the decision to reduce /cut funding was already made. My wife runs a school sports partnership of over 100 schools and has lost half of her team for next year, with funding ceasing altogether the year after. So much for legacy!!