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It's not fair to say our athletes "choked" in Rio


The relentless talk of medals and claims that top Australian athletes “choked” at the Rio Olympics are a result of our inflated expectations and skewed sporting values, writes Tom Taylor.

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Anna Meares finished 10th in the women’s sprint last week. In her interview afterwards, between tears, she turned to the camera and apologised “to Australia”.

Just days before, this remarkable athlete had become the most decorated Australian Olympic cyclist in history. Her frustration and devastation is understandable, but that she should feel an obligation to win for the country is an indication of something a little crooked in Australia’s sporting culture.

It feels as though Meares’ apology – and perhaps even Cate Campbell’s comment that her performance was the “greatest choke in Olympic history” – is in part an effort to pre-empt pieces like the one Steve Larkin wrote last week in which he claimed: “Aussies are choking in Rio”.

The problem is that Larkin’s analysis is as facile as it is unfair.

Meares is among a number of Australian athletes Larkin claimed have “choked”. (Full disclosure, among them he lists my good friend Nettie Edmondson, who finished 8th in the omnium.)

But it’s not just Larkin. Message boards, commentators and offices are full of Australians who are up in arms about the lack of gold medals that will return to Australia this week. It seems to matter little to them how these are delivered – the athlete and their performance are relatively unimportant.

The first thing to recognise is how poor and inflated our understanding of Australia’s Olympic hopes were going into Rio.

Larkin reeled off a list of athletes – including Cate Campbell, Anna Meares, the men’s hockey team, Emily Seebohm, Bronte Campbell and Annette Edmondson – who “arrived in Rio as either world record holders, world champions, world No.1 or defending Olympic champions”. What he did was take the complexities of form, favouritism and competition, then bundle them up into a neat package tinged with an Aussie-centric view of the world.

So let’s examine that approach.

If you were to pick a favourite for an Olympic gold medal, perhaps you might look at who won four years ago. Perhaps you might look at who won the most recent world championship. Perhaps you might look at who won the one before that, or any of the world championships in the past few years. Perhaps you might look at someone’s form in another event, or you might look at their qualifying times or performances in the preliminary rounds. You might look at the best performer in the world this year or the ones who won the most recent tournament held in Rio or Sao Paolo.

Each one of these might have a different winner.

To say, then, that someone was a world champion and that they then have choked in not winning is to miss a slew of other important indicators. For example, Anna Meares is defending Olympic champion in the individual sprint (the event that brought her to tears in the aforementioned interview), but it is also true that since then she hasn’t medalled at a world championship in the event.

What of the world champions then? If we continue with track cycling for a moment, then of the 10 world champions crowned earlier in 2016, only two of these won gold in the same event in Rio.

Some might suggest that means there were an awful lot of chokers. Or perhaps it is simply the nature of sport.

Some days, athletes do not perform. Some days, they are outperformed. Sometimes, they have mistimed their preparation for an event and peaked too soon.

In almost every sport, there was a competitor or a team that was highly favoured that just didn’t squeak through with a victory on the day. Examples include tennis players Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, the US women’s soccer team and the Brazilian women’s volleyball team.

Caught up in our pre-Olympics hysteria, we created and were fed both an image of what Australia might do at these games in terms of medals and a sense that the medal count was the most important outcome.

As our athletes think through their performances, we ought to look back at our own unhealthy preoccupation with the medal tally, which probably goes much deeper than the Olympics and even sport.

We miss so much when we measure the Olympics in medals, rather than stories or athletes, and we foster a culture where success is measured by which step on the podium one stands on.

We see only that the women’s team pursuit finished outside of the medals and miss the fact that one of their members had to put down her crutches to get onto the bike after a bad training crash a few days earlier.

This relentless talk of medals as the determinant of performance is not just unfortunate, it reduced our flag bearer to tears and our value of worth to medals.

Instead of commissioning another report into how we can be a more reliable medal factory, we ought to look at what it is that we value most in sport, which is surely more than a stack of medals.

Tom Taylor is originally from Adelaide and now lives in Melbourne. He has written for The Big Issue, Junkee and New Matilda.

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