Does Australia expect too much of its Olympic athletes?

It has long been a bugbear of mine – the very narrow range of behaviour in which Australians expect their athletes to behave. Here’s a summary:

They can be confident, but only so long as they win. When you’re confident and you lose, well that’s just a bad look (right James Magnussen?)

They can be passionate but not TOO passionate. Because that’s crossing the line into Lleyton Hewitt territory and no one wants to be like Lleyton Hewitt.

They should be bubbly, but not TOO out there (god, remember Sally Pearson at the last Olympics?)

They should be stoked when they win, but not make such a big deal about it that they make the losers feel bad.

They should be gracious and philosophical when they lose, but not TOO philosophical because that means they clearly don’t give a rats.

And they should NEVER cry – god please don’t cry. You know what’s worth crying over? Starving children in Africa.

Giving the better part of your life to a single dream and devoting every waking hour to that dream and then failing to achieve that dream? You’re kidding yourself if you think that’s worth any kind of tears or emotion. Buck up matey, the next Olympics are only four years away, you can try again then!

I am not sure what is going on with our swimmers. Somewhere along the line they have morphed from being media trained to within an inch of their lives and trotting out the same homogenous tripe at every post-race interview to … ohmigosh, showing actual emotions.  They’ve been dazed and aloof (Magnussen after the men’s 4x100m ‘debacle’) and they’ve cried (Seebhom after her 100m backstroke silver).

And they have been torn to shreds for this behaviour by both the Australian media and the punters on social media.

I understand that parents want their kids to watch athletes deal with all the highs and lows of competitive sport in a ‘sportsmanlike’ manner, but the reality is, it’s just not possible. They are human beings and if you’ve ever experienced an emotion (I am assuming you all have) you will know that emotions can’t be shoved aside in a millisecond.

Here’s a real life example for you. Imagine that you’re a female and all you’ve ever wanted is to be a mum. And you spend years trying for a baby. You see every fertility specialist in the country and you undergo every procedure known to man. You spend YEARS of your life pursuing this dream. Then one day your doctor sits you down and tells you this: “There’s nothing left to try, you will never be able to have a child of your own”. Imagine what you’re feeling.

Then imagine 30 seconds later someone shoves a microphone in your face and asks you for your thoughts. How composed do you reckon you would be? How polished, how ‘just right’ in your reaction?

Now I know you’re sitting there thinking “um big difference between chasing Olympic gold and trying to become a mum” but it’s not. It is a LIFE DREAM. I don’t think it is fair for us to deem that one life dream is more worthy than another. Consider the pleasure our nation gets collectively from an Olympic gold medal. Consider the pride we feel. Imagine now if we didn’t have athletes for whom that was a dream.

So what can we do? Well we can stop with the bagging of our athletes every. single. time. they don’t behave exactly the way we think they should. And for all the parents sitting their with their child when an athlete behaves a bit ‘off-key’ in a post-race interview, don’t quickly turn the tv off as you reach for your phone to have a crack at them. Instead discuss their reaction with your child, see what their thoughts are. Your child might surprise you at their sensitivity, perception and with what they take away from the situation. I think this is FAR more useful than pointing out the recalcitrant athlete on the tv and saying “don’t let me ever see you behave like that!”


So what do you think? Are you with me in thinking we expect FAR too much of our athletes? Or is it part of their job to behave within the very narrow confines of ‘appropriate behaviour’?


** NB: The above is not in response to any specific comments I saw on twitter or facebook.
It is more a response to the collective reaction I have seen over twenty years of watching sport in this country :)


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  1. says

    All very well said! I have found the media to be SO negative – especially in the pool. From accusing the Chinese of being drug cheats when the 16 year old won (so I guess everyone’s forgotten 15 year old Leisel Jones’ silver medal already?) to mocking those who missed out on medals – making puns at Nick D’Arcy being “knocked out” and wondering why Magnussen “choked”.

    Guess what? Being an athlete is HARD, emotionally and physically. These kids have sacrificed so much of being teenagers and young adults to try and be the best they can be at someone. For some of them, that doesn’t mean being the best in the world, and that shouldn’t matter.

    I spent 12 years of my life swimming up and down a pool before quitting in my late teens because I just couldn’t handle the pressure I got from my club and my family. Imagine if that pressure came from people I didn’t know – Australia’s media and it’s nation full of armchair athletes. Shame on us.

    • says

      I always think one of the hardest jobs ever is being a professional athlete in Australia. You are under such ridiculous scrutiny and expectations to do everything so perfectly, one wonders why ANYONE puts their hand up for the job!

  2. says

    I’ve been particularly stirred up this week about the way Leisel Jones was treated. If I was her, after her great swim in the heats, I would have given the bird right down the camera and screamed: “In your face Australian media.” These athletes have shown enormous discipline, commitment and focus to put in the thousands of hours training required to even qualify for the Olympics. Who are we to deny them their moment of joy, frustration or grief. Great post Kel.

  3. says

    yeah too much pressure on them. the majority are just kids. they are following a dream, a passion. i don’t believe for one moment that they are competing half-heartedly. years and years of training have gone into maybe a 2min race.

    just to be on the world stage is achievement enough, people should use that as inspiration rather than bag them out for not winning a medal.

    • says

      You got it Alex – half of them ARE just kids. And they are putting all of themselves into this. It’s asking too much of them to expect that they get over it in 30 seconds!

  4. says

    Back in 2000,I worked for the Olympic News Service and I never saw an athlete cry or unable to compose themselves for an interview. Not one and I did the gymnastics and basketball finals. I personally don’t think we are teaching kids enough these days about losing or sportsmanship.

    • says

      Yeah but were they being interviewed immediately after the fact? It’s the short lead time that gets the swimmers I think. They are still trying to process their disappointment when they’re being interviewed and it’s hard pulling that all under control. And honestly, I don’t want them to pull it all under control anyway – I want to hear what they are actually feeling instead of getting the standard ‘this isn’t what I am thinking but here’s what you want me to say’ response.


    • says

      I do think this is a good point. It’s that ‘reward everything’ issue – participation awards, good try awards, fiftieth runner up awards. I’ve stopped complimenting my kids for every single thing they do and now ask how THEY feel about it, because I’d got to a stage where even I could hardly tell the difference between my indifference and my resounding praise.

  5. says

    Yes, yes and yes. Well said. To give the example of James Magnussen – he’s 20 or 21 and had just experienced deep disappointment.

    I remember after the drawn grand final in 2010 when Channel 7 interviewed the captain and respected leader, Nick Maxwell. He was shattered and it showed. He let fly at the AFL for not allowing extra time and having to replay the game. He was criticised for this. They’d just toughed it out for a long 6 months season, loads of pre-season, then a rigorous 2.5 hour game and he was CRITICISED for showing his emotions.

    If anything, I found Adam Scott’s reaction losing the British Open a bit, I don’t know, weird! He was so circumspect. I would have been beside myself!!!

    • says

      Hey Lisa – I was totally the same with Adam Scott – it just seemed so odd! But then I guess he had a few holes to come to terms with what he had done!!

      I am tired of sportspeople being criticised for non-sanitised responses. I want to hear what they’re really thinking. Not what they’ve been told is the ‘right’ thing to say!

    • says

      Aw Liz I LOVE what you said in your letter – it’s so true!

      The thing is, the best lessons are the hardest ones. You can’t media train for this stuff, you have to experience it. I feel for Emily because apparently this is the first time she’s ever had an injury and illness free prep. And I know there is nothing worse than swimming faster in your heat than you do in the final. But live and learn and use those hard lessons for next time.

  6. Marina says

    We watch sports with the sound down sometimes – the commentators come out with some absolute trite. When my family make judgemental comments – my answer is ‘When did you last pull on a pair of budgie smugglers??” usually directed at a beer belly spokesperson! I don’t need to say it anymore, my kids say it for me lol! Our sports people are pretty amazing, I’m glad to see more and more retired athletes coming in as commentators, but I do wish a few of the older sports people would just drop off their perches, or don a pair of smugglers and jump in the deep end!

    • says

      Thank god for Suzie O’Neill – she has been the lone voice of reason in the Foxtel coverage bless her. I love that your kids anticipate your response and say it for you now Marina!!

  7. says

    See now I thought that what parents did. Use most “normal” situations as teaching/learning tools. There is nothing more ‘normal’ than emotions and dealing with them.

    The image of a devastated James Magnussen after the teams heartfelt and energetic competition was clearly understood by my young children.

    “Oh imagine how he is feeling Mum” said Miss 10.

    If only the armchair experts would just imagine it and I ask them this, do you really think there is anyone with a more vested interested in the outcome of these races than the competitors?

  8. says

    I agree. My heart ached for Magnussen. He’s only so young, his first Olympics, had so much pressure on him and had to live with not just losing his own dream, but feeling the weight of losing it for three other people.
    i can’t even believe how they expect them to talk straight after a race when they can’t even get their breath back. Give them a break.
    I was very disappointed in Carl Stevanovic the next morning after the boys relay when he interviewed one of the swimmers and kept grilling him about Magnussen. Back off.
    I’m working hard for my dream on my blogs and I cry and get frustrated all the time and no one is catching it on camera.
    I must say I really loved what Magnussen said after his race today and it was delightful to see the joy on his face. He took responsibility for his loss and spoke of how he learned more about himself over 2 days then he had his whole life and he was using that to turn things around. That is what we want our children to see and hear.

    • says

      That’s exactly it. I am seeing people talking about resilience and how our swimmers don’t seem to have any etc etc … Um the only way to build up resilience is to experience disappointment and then figure out a way to deal with it. I have no doubt that as you say, Magnussen has learned more in these last two days than in his whole career!

  9. says

    Could not agree more! Shoving a microphone in to someone’s face and then mocking them for being emotional is not on. I completely understand they’d be disappointed, if it was my dream I would be too. But I think the media treatment of the losses has a lot to answer for.

    These athletes are the top of the top and deserve credit. I wrote today that I don’t mean in the “everyone wins a prize” way, because I hate that. I mean in a “you tried hard, you did better than 99.999999% of the world, good on you”.

  10. Jonathon says

    Good post Kelly. Too much obsession with winning gold medals or making finals etc. IMO. Everyone who makes it to the olympics is a big winner, in fact everyone who gives their all in sports is a winner IMO. Medals are just one of many tools to get the best out of yourself. That was the original spirit of the Olympics, and too many of us especially the media have often lost sight of that. Sure we should aim for medals, especially gold ones, and celebrate when an Australian gets one in a big way, but we should celebrate every athlete, and especially every Australian athlete. Absolutely they are real people with unique passionate emotions, often emotions that represent many years of effort, sacrifice, and chasing dreams. The more passionate usually the mroe they are fighting, giving their all. Thats one reason why I admire Lleyton so much, is cos the passion he shows shows the mental energy he puts into his game. In my first marathon when it got hard near the end, I I tried to be like Lleyton and fight my way through to the end as much as I could. Steffenson also. (should have been running the individual 400 IMO…terrible decision by the powers that be). Even McEnroe too, although maybe not some of the bad sportsmanship, but pretty understandable that things get heated. If things are not emotional then probably they are not giving their all, or they are good at hiding emotions… Media training is good, but I think we all want to see the real thoughts, the real emotions, and we want to see Aussie Aussie Aussie OY OY OY ! deep down, and see them giving their best shot, and sharing some of the passion with us, both in the lows and the highs. I think we find inspiration in our heros when they battle with all they have and lose as well as win they have a glorious win.

    • says

      Yes Jonathon! I have been a Lleyton apologist for like, forever. I feel like I am the only who can see his passion and how MUCH he loves playing for his country. And it breaks my heart so much that his country just doesn’t understand him. Steffenson I get a bit frustrated with because I think he does himself no favours sometimes but at least we always know EXACTLY what he is thinking. And I think there is something to be said about that.

      • Jonathon says

        Hopefully Lleyton will be back at the Hopman again next year. Many of us Australians are big fans, the vocal minority that don’t like him gets too much media time. Unrepresentative. The Fanatics have it right. Have to get to an Australian Open sometime soon too, hopefully he still has a few more years left its been nearly 2 decades now…Steff could probably be a little more tactful, less confrontational, and a bit more diplomatic, and some of the things he says and does probably are not good options, but I’ll never forget him winning the commonwealth 400m in Melbourne games, and the “target steffenson shirts” were cool…I truly think he has been very unfairly treated on at least 3 major international events (Beijing and London are two of them), and probably a few other occasions. His strength is his weakness, and the authorities seem to miss that. There have been many like him over the years and the authorities generally handle it badly. B-qualifier and winning the trial = selection, and unless he has a broken leg, he should have run after that. He is the sort who can ride the emotion and rise to the occasion. To revoke his selection cos some other guys form seems slightly better, and he got injured after the trials is very silly, and potentially criminal. Who knows what he could have done now…Ive disagreed with the B-qualifier rules for many years, but thats an international issue. Its tricky cos in some events the A qualifier is too hard for many, and there are several B-qualified athletes who should all be going. Another example is Lauren Shelley who in many other countries would have been running the Marathon in London, but not in Australia. Then you get the Kenyans who probably have 200 A-qualifiers in the mens marathon, but they can only send a couple….Totally agree re we know EXACTLY what Steff is thinking and that is far better than someone who media-trains away anything real, or lies in a diplomatic politically correct manner habitually.

  11. Danyelle Franciosa says

    Lovely thought you have there Kelly.
    But you know what, I don’t really expect too much of it.
    Don’t expect them to get gold medals but be proud of them for being at the Olympics, that thing alone is a very great achievement right? and having a successful Olympic game is the best thing we could hope for them.

  12. says

    Great post Kelly. I do love a bit of personality in sport and I would dread someone placing a microphone in my face after losing anything – least of all a game of sport….terrible loser I am!

    • says

      Ha ha – years and years ago I had my first ever triathlon experience where I had the perfect preparation for a big race but ended up performing really poorly. I sulked for TWO WEEKS and couldn’t talk to anyone. Thank god I am not an Olympian ;)

  13. says

    Could not agree more… as if lining up to compete is not hard enough in itself they are expected to be the perfect package in and out of sporting moments..

  14. Dianne Penman says

    Think it’s time we remember our athletes are people first and not the machines we expect them to be.
    I get the ‘psychology’ of talking them up and encouraging them (from a very young age to think this way, themselves) but only one person / one team can win any given competition and the fact is that at the particular time they are competing, they are the best in OZ…..
    …. Worth remembering….. but then, reading all the posts on the topic, I can see you’re already talking to the converted!!!

    • says

      I am seeing so much dialogue at the moment from people saying ‘oh they’re just happy to be there, they’re not giving it their all etc etc’

      What. The. Heck!!! It is making me so stabby

  15. Karla says

    My husband and I have been bewildered by the media holding a press conference with the Head Coach, after we didnt win a ‘guaranteed’ medal….it just so arrogant and unAustralian for him/the media etc to pass comment in such a way that the medal was expected and the outrage that we didnt win !

    Why didnt we win, well on the day, in the conditions, against those competitors, we just didnt quite do well enough, thats competition! Does that mean our athletes didnt try hard enough, of course not !

    Im struggling to put this into words exactly, I hope this makes sense, struggling with head cold ! Yuk.

    • says

      Did they seriously?! Oh my goodness that is taking it too far. Nothing is guaranteed in life. Especially when it involves human being who are … human!!

      PS Hope you feel better soon!

  16. says

    I wrote about this yesterday (although your post is much more eloquent!) The way the swimmers have been slammed has actually turned me off the Olympics this time around. We put these athletes up on a pedestal because they are elite – they are the best in the country at what they do and of course we want them to win – so I can understand the expectations on them. But, winning isn’t everything. The mere fact that they are Olympians is an achievement in itself. The media needs to remember that they are only human after all – we all have good AND bad days.

    From an athlete’s perspective, I have a friend who is a pro-golfer who weighed into the debate (on a friend’s fb page) and said that “You have to be self focused at that level to achieve what they are wanting especially in an individual sport. Not saying they should be spoken rudely to but the reality is that they go there to win gold. The expectations that you’re going to win gold are there when you are the favourite to win…..As sportsmen we also expect to have the media ask the tough questions, when you are at the world level in your sport you are expected to speak to the media and there is no place to hide when things don’t go so well. It’s not nice and not enjoyable for the athlete but it is part of their job.” – Puts it into a bit of perspective, but I still think the pressure on them to conform to how we would like them to be is just too much. (Sorry I made such a long comment!)

    • says

      I love this comment Deb and I love the insight your pro-Golfer friend provides.

      My main bugbear is that our athletes are expected to react and behave within a very tight and narrow range and when they don’t ( when they express disappoinment or look visibly upset when things don’t go right), they get slammed. I know the media need something to write about but sometimes I wish they’d back our athletes both in the good times AND the bad! Unrealistic I know!