Category Archives: A little bit of sport

Rugby League Shining Brightly

Sixteen weeks ago, Newcastle Knights’ player Alex McKinnon suffered a serious neck injury which has seen him confined to a wheelchair. The 22-year-old now has a long rehabilitation process ahead of him. Almost immediately after the incredibly rare, yet devastating event, the rugby league community, from the professional right through to the grassroots level, rallied around the rising star of the NRL whose whole life has now changed.

In a wonderful gesture, the Newcastle Knights – under financial strain – said that they would honour the rest of Alex McKinnon’s contract in order to assist Alex and his family with the long rehabilitation process. The NRL stepped up and delivered too. Alex McKinnon was graciously offered a job for life with the organisation, and a foundation was set up in his name.

But that was not all. Not that long ago the NRL said that Round 19 would be the #RiseForAlex round. The aim of the round, to raise funds for the foundation and for McKinnon. Another wonderful idea.

That round commenced on Friday night, with two very entertaining and high-scoring matches played. The two games so far were a celebration of rugby league, as much as they were a chance to help out a young man in need.

As I sat comfortably in my loungeroom, I began to ponder all things Alex McKinnon and all things NRL. It was a cathartic experience as I parsed through the thoughts I was having about what this tragedy, and the way the different actors have reacted, says about the NRL and its’ players. And there were thoughts about the man himself.

There might have also been a quiet tear or two. But they were happy tears. The Alex McKinnon situation resonated with me on a personal level.

Aside from a small issue I have grappled with in relation to the #RiseForAlex hashtag, and the contentious judiciary decision involving a Melbourne Storm player, the Knights and the rugby league community as a whole, not just the NRL have conducted themselves admirably. Their actions soon after the full extent of the injury to Alex McKinnon was known, could barely be faulted.

The one thing that I am still the tiniest bit unsure about is the wording of the hashtag. Is it a call to the community to get in and raise money? Or does it imply, in the tiniest way, that others have to help Alex and that he cannot help himself? I am probably over-thinking this. I have a tendency to do that. But nonetheless, the thought did cross my mind. Obviously though, I am not claiming there was any malicious intent. It’s just the case that words can have different meanings to different people.

Aside from my happiness at seeing the NRL community pull together, I also considered how Alex has so far dealt with what is the biggest challenge in his young life.

This is where it got really personal for me. I too have a disability. I was born with Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus.

I thankfully still have the use of my legs. But life has not been without its challenges. But they pale in comparison with those struggles that Alex and his family are now enduring. Alex is the very personification for me of the old adage that there is always someone doing it tougher than you.

The way that he has dealt with his acquired injury – and in the public eye – is something to behold. I have known nothing but a life of disability and I struggled to come to terms with it, basically until I found swimming when I was about 11. A few months after his injury, Alex appears to be dealing with his far more severe disability in a much more positive way. Of course he admits there have been tough times, but it barely shows when you see his smiling face in the video updates.

A horrific event in rugby league has brought out the best in those involved in the game. And it appears it has brought out the best in the victim. Perhaps most importantly, the response of the broader community appears to have been quite significant based on early indications.

You cannot underestimate too, the effect this might have on the way that we as Australians view disability.

Our National Cultural Pastime Is Not So Clean After All

A very worrying report by the Australian Crime Commission was released today. The document details extensive doping in Australian sport and comes after a year-long investigation by the ACC. The investigation found that not only is doping and other illicit drug use prevalent in Australian sport, but that it has been in some cases, allegedly aided and abetted by team officials. Perhaps the most worrying part is that criminal networks are actively pushing the importation of the illegal substances. Further, it is also alleged in the report that new drugs, not yet approved for human consumption, also form a part of the problem.

No longer as Australians can we say that we are a clean nation when it comes to doping in sport. It appears that as a nation we have buried our collective heads in the sand, not wanting to believe that our sporting heroes could possibly be engaged in the consumption of illegal substances. There have of course been a number of what appeared at the time to be rather isolated incidents to date.

Now, however, we know that the taking of illicit substances is a much bigger problem. We just do not know which individuals, which teams and which sports will be the most heavily impacted by today’s disturbing revelations.

What makes today’s very public pronouncement so problematic, aside from the abuse of illegal substances, is that sport is so entrenched in Australian culture. Our sports’ heroes are treated as godlike by an adoring public. Sport is the most attended, most watched cultural event on the Australian calendar.  Surely some of that deification, that praise and worshiping will subside, at least until we discover exactly which sports are the main culprits. That may translate into lower attendances at sporting events too.

Our political leaders involved in sport and in crime prevention joined together today with the heads of some of the major sporting codes in Australia to show a united front. It was a show of force to publicly say that the status quo cannot continue – that something substantial has to be done to tackle the use of illicit substances and prevent widespread doping.

When considering the fact that there is a concern about the use of drugs not yet deemed fit for human consumption, and to some extent those already on the banned substances list – a beefing up of Customs’ examination of cargo is a good start, but by no means a panacea.Getting them approved for usage or put on the banned substances list for sports is also of the utmost importance. But cracking down on this area of drug use will probably prove the hardest task of all, aside from the government doing what it can to prevent the dissemination of these substances.

Naivety must not be tolerated as an excuse by athletes, for doping especially, but even more so for recreational drugs. In terms of the former, athletes are constantly warned to check if a particular drug is on the banned substances list. They are told if they are in any doubt about using a drug, then they should not use that particular product.

The revelations today point to that fact that drug testing may not be as widespread as we were made to believe. Or perhaps that it needs to be more widespread. Sure, testing will not be able to identify all performance enhancing substances, especially in the case of new drugs not yet available in the legal market, but there’s clearly shortfalls here and that is a shame. A big part of improving the testing regime will be trying to keep up on the testing front, with the array of substances available in the market, legally or otherwise. Perhaps a nationally aligned regime of testing and penalties across all professional sports is required.

Obviously drug use in sport will always be a problem, regardless of the amount of resources devoted to trying to stamp it out. But all that can be done simply has to be tried to minimise the damage done to what is truly a national cultural pastime – enjoying sport.

Wrestling, Hookers and Fullbacks

There’s just a touch over 48 hours until that other grand final this weekend, the one that comes just a day after the Sydney Swans and the Hawthorn Hawks take to the MCG to battle for AFL honours. The National Rugby League final promises to be an intensely physical encounter between two teams that reached the absolute pinnacle in 2012. The teams finished 1st and 2nd in the minor premiership with the Canterbury Bulldogs taking the honours in the regular season over a Melbourne Storm outfit that have been consistent performers over a number of seasons.

But of course season-winning exploits mean little when it gets to the big one. Generally speaking, the two teams that make the last match of the season are closer on paper and of course in with a 50% shot, theoretically. It’s also the case that, when both teams finished the regular season first and second, they are of course, automatically said to be nearer each other in their chances for glory than not.

Different games and their different team match-ups bring a unique complexion to each game where different players and player combinations are required to excel in order to clock-up a win. In this particular game, it’ll no doubt be a battle of the hookers and fullbacks with some wrestling manoeuvres likely to also play a significant part in the game as has been the norm for a few seasons in the rugby league.

The game on Sunday should pit the experienced and widely regarded world’s best fullback, Billy Slater for the Melbourne Storm up against the barnstorming and youthful up-and-comer Ben Barba for the Bulldogs. This should eventuate despite Billy Slater coming down with a cold, with the team certain he will play.

This is probably a closer match-up than most would admit, with Barba not exactly streets behind Slater in the race to be the best fullback in the world.  Indeed Barba this year has been judged the best fullback in the NRL, effectively claiming the world mantle.

Both Ben Barba and Billy Slater are capable of swiftly moving up the field and breaking tackles. Both are known for their ability to easily streak past weary and unaware players, steaming away to score tries having run the length of the field. These plays alone have the ability to make all the difference on Sunday if playing conditions see the two teams competing on a dry playing field, no rain in sight.

The key to defusing the explosive tendencies of the two number ones will be with the kicking game of both sides. Both are usually strong under the high ball as they need to be, but a vulnerability exists there, especially in the case of Billy Slater who erred under pressure in the Origin series. The pack must be ready to chase after kicks targeting these players with gusto. The probability that one or two might be dropped increases with every opportunity taken.

Sending down a number of high kicks can also work for good defensive field position and can be used in attack for just as much efficacy, as long as the usage of such plays does not become predictable throughout the 80 minutes of the game.

The second key position will be the two hookers, Cameron Smith for Melbourne and Michael Ennis for Canterbury. One of the key players on the field, it will be Smith and Ennis, both class acts, as much as it pains to say about the on-field exploits of the latter, who will be there to get the ball into a good position in attack.

Another high tension element of the battle of the hookers will be the niggle. There is no love lost between Cameron Smith and Michael Ennis. The latter is more than capable of niggling opponents and chooses to do this a little more than most players in the competition. Cameron Smith will usually let his actions do the talking and the key will be him keeping his composure and perhaps forcing a penalty or two from an Ennis indiscretion.

Of course, the halves too, as they always have in rugby league will also be crucial, but in a game where Cronk is streets ahead of his opposing half, that equation doesn’t particularly change things and won’t signal a key two person contest within the broader game.

The final ingredient in the mix that is the Canterbury Bulldogs versus Melbourne Storm grand final will be the use of legal and perhaps sneaky illegal wrestling techniques. Both teams are professional at this with the Storm having pioneered the use of the so-called “chicken wing” tackle.

All NRL sides use wrestling moves, that is true. That is required in order to keep up with the competition. Such moves also act to slow the game down as well as causing a bit of pain. The referees will be on the lookout for the illegal chicken wing tackle, but most other moves are fair game and will be used more and more in the event of a very close contest on Sunday night.

The head says Melbourne will win, they’re big game players and have been there (the grand final) so many times in this decade, though Canterbury have been there more over the last 20 years. The difference is that the Storm have not been around that long. The Storm too, have more big game players than their opponents and this could also prove crucial to the end result. The heart on the other hand? Well, it doesn’t care.

Lessons From the Paralympics That Have Been Learnt and Can be Harnessed

The Paralympics have now been over for a bit over half a week. They were a top-class event put together by a masterful organising committee that also had responsibility for that other successful major event, the Olympic Games. Australia did so well. We put together the most successful touring performance of any Australian Paralympic team in history. That performance put us just two gold medals and a number of silver and bronze behind the strongly-funded hosts, Great Britain and just four golds and a handful of minor medals behind second placed Russian Federation.

But far from the phenomenal medal-winning performances and that of all the athletes across all nations involved, the London 2012 Paralympics have taught us some valuable lessons which can be harnessed to facilitate lasting change when it comes to the politics of disability.

Firstly, London put on an amazing show, on an unprecedented scale. These were the highest selling Paralympic Games ever. That mantle looks sure to be safe for quite some time too, perhaps never to be broken, ever. Nearly all of the two and a half million tickets allocated for the Games in London were sold, that makes a huge change to the usually relatively empty stands that our Paralympians tend to have to deal with every four years.

This says that London and Europe in particular “do” disability very well. It shows that people there view disability much more favourably than the much discriminated against and stigmatised disability community here in Australia. This could be a product of many things, but clearly disability and difference experiences a much greater degree of acceptance across Europe. That’s not to say things are great over there, disability has experienced cuts as the economic woes continue in that region.

A large contributing factor is probably how the welfare state is viewed in Europe as compared to Australia. There is less of a stigma to it in that region of the world. Those who rely on it are not discriminated against as much and are viewed as needing it and entitled to it, more so than Australians who tend to view welfare, even for those who cannot avoid it, with a level of disdain.

What the great spectator turnout at the Paralympics also shows is that disabled sport now appears, at least in Europe as just as elite and requiring just as much training, skill, ability and overall sporting prowess as the “able bods”.

But far from the lessons we can learn about Europe and how they view disability, we can also look at how they were viewed back here at home in Australia.

That story is almost as positive. As I wrote last week, the Paralympic Games from London consistently brought strong ratings for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s digital channel, ABC2, as well as the original channel, ABC1. That means Australians were more than willing to give the Paralympics a go and the relatively consistent ratings throughout proves that people continued to be enthralled by the exploits of our elite athletes.

It shows that, as I wrote last week, the Paralympic Games have the ability to transform how we view disability here in Australia, not just the sporting abilities of those with impairments, but also how disability is looked at within the broader community.

The efforts of our Paralympians must be harnessed by disability advocates in order to continue to foment change in such a neglected sector of the community. It shows that the efforts of supporters of those with a disability may well not be in vain, that there is a positive view of disability that is growing across Australia. That growth may be slow, but it is something that can be pushed along just that little bit faster by displays such as the Paralympics. Stigmas are hard to break, some would say impossible, but you certainly couldn’t say that after the last two weeks.

Australia and the world is learning and learning fast about disability. But that means absolutely nothing if the lessons that have been learnt over the last two weeks are not actually used to further the interests of people with a disability. It would be nice if Australia could aim to be more accepting of disability than the Brits showed. You could call it the ‘Ashes of Acceptance’, since we love beating the Poms so much at contests.

It’s Okay to be Inspired by Our Paralympians

The London 2012 Paralympic Games are almost over. Most races and events have been run and won. Australia has done amazingly well given the relatively small contingent of 161 athletes representing us against some of the bigger teams we are competing with. As a nation, Australia have, at the time of writing, scored a total of 25 gold, 18 silver and 26 bronze, a phenomenal haul, putting us 5th on the medal tally, happily just ahead of the United States of America. The only teams ahead of us are China way out in front, the host nation Great Britain even in gold medals with Russia but ahead on the overall count and Ukraine ahead of us by two.

At just 5:30am in the morning on the 30th of August Australian time, a total of 347,000 Australians woke up to tune into the Opening Ceremony of the London Paralympics, giving the station some of its strongest ratings ever. These relatively high viewing numbers have continued throughout the coverage of the events during the 7-11:00pm timeslot  on the ABC’s digital television station ABC2. The Paralympics have also continued to be shown on ABC1 for the finals sessions, occurring from 4am in the morning AEST.

But aside from the prolific medal-winning performances of our Paralympians in London, the biggest and most important element of the Paralympics is the effects that it is having back here at home on the Australian population.

The Paralympic Games, with such in-depth coverage give the opportunity for transformative effects on the Australian population, in particular the way in which people with a disability are viewed in Australia. All too often those with a disability are viewed by some ‘able-bods’ as having little worth and something to gawk at when we dare venture out into the community to live our lives to the best of our boundless abilities.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent times within the disability community about the word inspiration and particularly about so-called ‘inspiration porn’, that is, images of people with a disability with slogans meant to tug at the heartstrings. A lot of that has been viewed by those who have a disability with disdain.

Equally too and relevant directly to the 2012 Paralympics, words such as ‘inspirational’ and ‘amazing’ have been used to excess in describing the astonishing feats of our elite athletes with a disability. These comments again from some in the disability community have drawn equal condemnation to that which inspiration porn has attracted.

Many want our Paralympians to be seen as no different to our Olympians. They are elite sportspeople getting out of bed early and often to train to the highest level in their chosen sport. They don’t want to be seen as having done something any different to that of athletes without an impairment.

In the case of the Paralympics though, is it fair to view people commenting about the achievements of our Paralympic athletes with the kind of annoyance of that in relation to inspiration porn?

Recently, our Olympians had their shot at glory and in the early days of the Games, didn’t have as much success as was expected. But then we came good in the latter stages of the event to at least gain a respectable finish.

The superlatives flew in the final days of the competition with the strong performances we recorded, particularly in events we weren’t expected to excel in after under-performing in those we were. During the Olympic Games in London the words ‘inspirational’ and ‘extraordinary’ and just about any other superlative in existence were used to describe our Olympic athletes too.

So in this sense, we aren’t treating athletes with a disability any differently to athletes that do not. We might use a different degree of vigour in describing the efforts of our Paralympians, but for all intents and purposes they’re being referred to in exactly the same way as their Olympic counterparts.

We as Australians find our sportsmen and women inspiring. Sport is so entwined in our culture that we elevate those that show immense sporting prowess to a g0d-like status. Now that might be right or wrong, but that’s what happens and that is now happening to a similar extent with the broader commentary that our Paralympic athletes have been subjected to since the London Paralympics began.

That doesn’t mean that the occasional over-enthusiastic labelling of a Paralympian’s effort hasn’t occurred during the coverage of the Paralympic Games. It probably has. But is this automatically a bad thing?

Disability in Australia, as mentioned earlier, is not viewed as favourably and treated as equally as it is in particularly European countries and in the UK as anecdotal evidence has shown over the past week and a bit. So any change in the Australian mindset that results from this more in-depth broadcasting of the most elite of disabled sporting events should be viewed as a positive.

The fact  that our Paralympic athletes are now being referred to as inspirational and amazing signals at least a small shift in the perceptions of disability and it would be great if this continued to pervade the Australian political, social and cultural discourse.

It shouldn’t particularly matter how the minds of Australians are changed when viewing disability, providing that people aren’t condescending pricks when they talk to or about someone with a disability, what should matter is that the change itself is occurring.

So let’s embrace the inspirational, amazing, fantastic exploits of our Paralympic heroes, perhaps then, through maintained or increased exposure, we’ll begin to experience the change in thinking that we want to see.

My Top Moments of the Paralympic Games So Far

The London 2012 Paralympic Games are now more than half done for another year. There have been a number of sensational performances including proimising results from up and coming competitors in the Paralympic arena. Australia stands fourth in the medal tally with 16 gold, thirteen silver and 19 bronze, behind China in 1st on 46 gold, Great Britain in 2nd on 19 and Russia in 3rd with 16 gold like Australia, but more silver. We look almost set for a top 5 finish which is excellent given the stiff competition we’ve faced, but we are certain to finish top 7 with Germany having to make up a significant gap without Australia winning anymore gold just to be on even terms.

The first amazing performance is actually an amazing effort across a number of events. Maddison Elliott in the Australian swimming team is competing in her first Paralympic Games and that’s just as well, given that she’s just 13 years old. The up and coming swimmer from the Hunter Valley has just claimed her first ever Paralympic gold medal as a part of the women’s 4x100m combined 34 point relay overnight London time. This comes after Maddison became the youngest ever Paralympic silver medallist and earlier claimed a bronze medal in the pool.

The next amazing moment comes from the relatively well-known three-time Paralympian, Matthew Cowdrey, for whom history beckons as the greatest ever Paralympian Australia has produced. Matthew Cowdrey yesterday equalled that mark in the men’s combined 34 point 4x100m freestyle relay, moving to 10 gold medals.

Next up, who could go past Jacqueline Freney who is the single biggest medal winner of any competitor at these 2012 Paralympics. The competitor from the S7 and SM 7 classification was the anchor leg of the women’s combined 34 point 4x100m freestyle relay and also just won gold in the 10om freestyle for her class.

Finally, to the most talked about and debated upset of the 2012 Paralympics. Yes, just about everyone on the planet has heard about it, Oscar Pistorius being beaten into 2nd in the T44 200m at the track. The hot favourite was beaten by Brazilian Alan Oliveira in the closing stages of the race with the relative unknown eclipsing the almost unbackable Pistorius. Immediately Oscar Pistorius questioned the win when interviewed for television and the win has sent the sporting world into a frenzied debate again over the use of the prosthetic blades.

Those are just four of the most interesting, exhilarating, inspiring and in the case of the last example, controversial moments. But there are still 6 days left which promise to bring more amazing performances including, hopefully from our wheelchair basketball teams, the wheelchair rugby team. Expect more gold medal exploits in the pool too, perhaps with Matt Cowdrey eclipsing Tim Sullivan’s combined Paralympic gold medal haul across his career. With that much time left, there is still plenty of opportunities for more gold, silver and bronze.

How About We Let the Sport do the Talking?

The London 2012 Paralympic Games are here, they’re finally here. The biggest ever Paralympic Games have returned to land of their spiritual birthplace, England. Over 4000 athletes have converged on the Paralympic Village, ready to compete across 21 sports, some everyday sports and some  adapted especially for athletes with a disability. This Paralympic Games has also seen the most number of tickets sold for the entire event, with 2.4 of 2.5 million tickets snapped up by sports mad people from the United Kingdom and around the world.

The television coverage domestically has also promised to be huge. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the perennial broadcast partner for the Paralympic Games again won the right to broadcast the event from start to finish. The ABC coverage of this year’s Paralympics has been much talked about. With the advent of digital television and the subsequent new channels allowing for greater coverage of this important sporting exhibition, more coverage, much more was promised.

Across two channels, the ABC have begun broadcasting a total of nine and a half hours daily from the Paralympic Games. This is a big shift from years previous when a highlights show and some radio commentary were the stock standard fare and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation should be congratulated for committing to such widespread coverage and the fact that the exposure of the Games is heading in the right direction, up.

Aside from the opening ceremony, which was brilliantly- read minimally narrated and impressively broadcast to the Australian people, the televising of the actual sporting prowess of our Paralympic athletes began right as the competition started.

That broadcast was headed in the studio by Stephanie Brantz, no stranger to sports commentary, as well as being co-hosted by comedian Lawrence Mooney, actor Adam Zwar and Sam Pang. Guests joined the hosts throughout four and a half hours of coverage on the ABC’s digital television channel.

A number of the finest voices of ABC Grandstand and ABC Radio  were stationed at the sporting venues across London, ready to bring the action to a curious Australian audience to a magnitude never seen before in this country.

If there was a failure of the coverage last night, it was that there was too much talk and not enough action. The stars of the Paralympics are supposed to be the athletes who’ve put in massive effort over the years and overcome more adversity than most people will ever encounter.

Instead, for much of the night, we were made familiar with the comedic exploits in particular of Lawrence Mooney and Adam Zwar, but also Sam Pang, who’ve been in the United Kingdom for some time already. The chat was interweaved with numerous introductions to the Australian team and some of its members individually, but that would ideally have taken place while there was little or no sport on, say between 6 and 7pm last night.

Oh and another thing. The only thing “live” about most of the coverage last night and yes the website says it was supposed to be live, is that the commentators were broadcasting live from London. Very little of the sport appeared live amid all the chin-wagging back in the studio. At one point the swimming heats went from one of the later heats in one event, directly to the second heat of presumably the next event. I’m sorry, but to me live coverage means footage of the actual competition is beamed to our televisions instantaneously,  not people sitting around in a studio talking about the sports we want to see as viewers.

As an indication of just how wrong they got it with the coverage last night, Twitter was abuzz with comments lamenting the lack of athletic action being displayed on televisions around Australia. One person even remarked to me that they were so disappointed they felt that switching off after a while was the only answer.

So here’s a radical thought: more sport and less talk. We know the c0-hosts are funny or at least try to be. But they’re not why we as viewers are tuning in. We want to see sporting genius, we want to share the joy of stellar efforts in the pool, on the road, the track and the other arenas. If we wanted a laugh we’d go to their gigs. To steal a line from Elvis and alter it just a bit, a little less conversation, a little more sporting action please.

There’s One Sporting Team to Come That Won’t Need a Performance Review Nor Extra Funding to Outstrip our Olympic Team

There’s just under three weeks to go until another massive sporting event begins in London. The 2012 Paralympic Games return to the spiritual birthplace of the Paralympic movement. Australia is traditionally very strong at the Paralympic Games compared to the Olympics, with medal tallies often outstripping that of our Olympians. Some will put that down to the extra events which are necessary to accommodate the varying levels of disability. Others, like me will say that has nothing to do with it, each respective athlete still has to be able to perform on the day.

One of the strongest sports at the Paralympics for Australia, if not the strongest, is traditionally the swimming, just like it is with that other competition they call the Olympics.

Unlike the Olympic counterparts, the Australian Paralympic Swimming team are unlikely to need a soul-searching performance review complete with navel-gazing to determine what went wrong with their campaign.

There’s likely to be a gold rush to rival Victoria in the 1800’s as I’ve written before. Our collective medal haul in the pool alone, if melted down, would likely save Spain and Greece from the ignominy of default. Okay, maybe I’m embellishing just a little bit, but nonetheless our performance in the pool alone at the Paralympics is a real possibility of eclipsing the overall gold medal tally of our Olympic team which currently stands at 5 golds.

And all that before factoring in the strong possibilities of gold medals in other sports for Australia at the London Paralympics.

Our athletics team which has not under-performed by any means in the past is likely to again bring home medals, some of them gold, but also silver and bronze.

With people like relatively well-known Paralympian Kurt Fearnley competing again in London we’re sure to make a strong showing. The three time gold medallist will line up for his third Paralympic Games in an attempt to win gold in the 800m, 1500m and the marathon which Kurt has made his own.

Other track and field athletes to look out for at the Paralympics include Kelly Cartwright who broke the long jump world record for her classification in 2011 and then earlier this year broke both the 100m and 200m world records in her class. Then there’s Evan O’Hanlon who broke his own world record this year in the 100m, Jessica Gallagher who’s competed in the Winter Paralympics before and medalled in the sport and up and comers some of whom will be in with a real shot of a medal.

Then you have the wheelchair basketball with the Australian men’s team, the Rollers the defending champions from Beijing who are sure to again push the USA, Canada and the home team Great Britain for another gold medal. Not to be outdone, the women’s team who received bronze at the Paralympic Games in China will also be a good chance of another medal.

Australia also has a great chance in the wheelchair rugby, popularly known as ‘murderball’ for the rough nature of the game. The Australian team, with superstar Ryley Batt, will want to go one better on their effort at the Chinese games and win back the gold which the team won at Sydney in 2000.

Those sports alone, chiefly swimming and athletics, should easily see the gold medal tally go into double figures before sports like cycling, equestrian, powerlifting, sailing and more.

We’ll be up against it with the British hosts having plunged an astronomic amount into funding for both Paralympic and Olympic athletes, but any review won’t be raising depressing concerns about the performance of our Paralympic athletes.

It’s time to get excited Australia, with nine and a half hours of live television coverage daily to keep you happy and up to date with our teams’ exploits.

A Quick and Free Review of the Australian Swimming Team

There is no doubt that the Australian swimming team performed poorly as compared with a number of previous Olympic campaigns. Those events we were expected to win, we either got painstakingly close, or our swimmers fell in a heap. Similarly, some of those swimmers that did not face a burden of expectation broke through to medal, at times in events you would’ve been excused to think we never had any hope in.

Our performances in the pool, which usually get us off to a strong start in the medal tally and up there with the best countries just didn’t happen. This has sparked a much publicised review by former Olympic champion swimmer Susie O’Neill and experienced swimming coach Bill Sweetenham.

The idea of a review of the sporting performance of our swimmers is not new. As Head Coach Leigh Nugent has pointed out, the swim team is always subject to a performance review after every major meet and well, the Olympics is up there with the major aquatic events that exist.

There should be absolutely no doubt that each individual swimmer and their respective coaches trained to exactly the same level they ordinarily would. This means intense and event targeted training for the whole time each swimmer remained with their local club’s before heading overseas for the pre-Olympics swimming camp and then London.

Tapering too would not have proved an issue and would have been closely supervised by the elite coaches travelling with the Australian swimming team in the weeks before London 2012. It is just too ridiculous a proposition to think that such high-level experts would have got the tapering of any of the athletes wrong.

Last night the ABC’s program 7.30 weighed into the debate with a report on the discord between the swimmers, their families and Swimming Australia. The story reviewed a shocking level of disdain for the athletes in one of our most successful sports at the Olympic level.

Daniel Kowalski, a former swimmer who now represents the Australian Swimmers’ Association said that just before the London Olympics commenced, while some Australian swimmers were in training together overseas, pay arrangements were changed. The pay scale was changed to a “high-performance model”.

In this model all of our swimmers were to be paid a small base rate with a significant performance bonus, if, and only if they received gold, silver or bronze from their respective events. The performance pay would net gold medal winners $35,000 and those who made the final but came in last $4000 for each event. But if you swam in a race and didn’t progress into the final, no dough.

Ordinarily, performance pay is a brilliant concept, providing that it doesn’t detract from a base wage. Much more importantly, bonuses for strong performances are an excellent idea providing you don’t do as Swimming Australia did and foist it upon athletes so near to a major competition, especially the highest of events.

Now, you might be wondering how this would impact on performance? The answer is quite simple. If you are worrying at the last minute before you’re expected to perform strongly in your chosen profession about how much money you might be taking home and it could affect how much money you have to pay bills, you’re not going to be thinking of your race so much.

There’s also another not so insignificant factor which may have impacted on our performances. That is the incredibly poor decision of the swimming team to not take a psychologist with them to the pre-games training camp and then into the Olympic village. There was nobody there that swimmers could trust, especially in light of Swimming Australia’s decision on pay, to air their concerns and emotions. This means there was nobody in London with the squad that would have been able to respond in a properly trained and professional manner to the worries that might distract the attention of athletes.

Another factor that cannot be discounted and which could have been more significant than any other factor in the sub-par performance of our swimming team is the performance of other countries. It’s not as if we didn’t contribute significant funds to our Olympians, we did. The strong performance of swimmers from other nations was probably unexpected. It should have been figured into the equation as a real possibility given the changing state of our swimming team, with past champions suffering from injury and others who were set to retire after London.

It’s clear that the cultural issues within the peak swimming body which undoubtedly flowed through to the swimming team were a major distraction for our swimmers. The significance of this was accelerated by the inability of members of the team to access professional psychological help while overseas.

There was certainly no problem with the workload of our athletes before the Olympics and the tapering while overseas clearly would not have been an issue either.

It is also undoubtedly a strong possibility that our swimmers were also outperformed in their events.

Clearly there are a number of things to work on before the next major international competition, the FINA World Championships in Barcelona next year, most within the control of the governing body for swimming in Australia. Some brutal honesty and soul searching is required during the upcoming review.

If You Build It He or She Won’t Automatically Come

There’s no denying we’ve not lived up to expectations as far as gold medals go at the London 2012 Olympic Games. So far we’ve won two golds, with another assured in the sailing and Sally Pearson looking very good to take top spot in the 100m hurdles tomorrow Australian time. Other teams and individuals are also chances in the remaining days of competition of winning gold for Australia. Our performance, which was looking like being about as bad as the 1988 Seoul Olympics is now on track to at least equal that, perhaps go a bit better.

Our swimming team which normally leads the charge hasn’t been as dominant in the first week of competition as they traditionally have been and that has led to us being behind the eight-ball. We could quite easily have been two or three medals up on our current tally of two gold medals had all gone to plan at the aquatic centre.

It is the performance of the Australian Olympic team, initiated by our swimmers in the pool that has sparked intense political debate from within the media, the sporting fraternity, government, interest groups and the broader community about different ways to ensure the lacklustre performance does not occur again in the future.

This has ranged from “stop funding our athletes” or “fund them on a performance basis” to “they’re doing well, just look at how many silvers and bronze they have received”. There have also been cries of “we need much more funding” from Olympic officials.

The below par efforts of our aquatic stars has also sparked a thorough review of the way we performed in the lead-up to and during the London Games and will be presided over by Bill Sweetenham and recent swimming critic and former superstar, Susie O’Neill.

But it is the entry into the debate of former New South Wales Premier, now Basketball Australia Chief Executive Officer, Kristina Keneally that is the latest in the argument over what needs to be done to improve our sporting prowess in the future.

The former politician turned sports administrator advocated in an interview on the ABC’s The World Today program for more participation in sport in primary school years for children.

This is certainly an enviable aim where teachers and parents should be both encouraging participation at an early age and also providing, where possible during a crammed school curriculum, for more sports-based educational opportunities. The benefits of this would be fitter and healthier children with the potential to develop their sporting abilities much further in the future.

But by far her most important overall point was that more sporting facilities need to be provided in Australia and that existing venues need to be brought up to a better standard. This is problematic. Indeed it is too simplistic an argument to say “if we build it, he (or she) will come.”

It is true that better sporting facilities, that is improving the ones that already exist, will mean that sporting clubs and venues better accommodate the needs of participants. We owe it to our kids to have better facilities for them to participate in but whose role that is, whether it be state or federal government or clubs or charities or a combination of some or all of the above is up for debate.

But it is not true or a given to say that improving sporting facilities will lead to increased participation by young people in the various sports that are played, particularly of a weekend on ovals, fields and courts and in pools around Australia.

It is even less the case that Kristina Keneally’s point about providing more facilities for sports will mean that people of a young, indeed all ages will want to participate in sport outside of school hours any more than they already do. New sporting facilities will only be filled if there is a demand for them and that partly goes back to schools and parents and the active encouragement they give their children as far as involvement in sport goes. Even then increased supply of sporting facilities would not necessarily lead to full venues.

It is only worth building extra facilities if it is a certainty that the increased numbers of sports fields will actually be utilised and not find themselves in a rundown state like some of the overused facilities.

What generally seems to work in regards to increased sporting participation is when there is an increased profile of particular sports and then with others that have been popular for some time like cricket, rugby league, rugby union, AFL and netball.

Encouragement of the young and impressionable is the key to greater sports participation and performance in the future, but that has to be balanced with parents and educators not placing unrealistic expectations on their children. What is certain is that new facilities will not automatically translate into new participants. If you build it, don’t automatically expect them to come.

%d bloggers like this: