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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.

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.

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.

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