It was a result that had plenty of experts screaming for autopsies and inquests: Australia could only scrape into 10th position at Rio 2016. That once proud sporting nation had been shamed and cast drift in world sports.
Heads would roll. Careers would end. This tragedy would be buried.
But should Australians be that surprised that they could amass a mere 29 medals, only eight of which were gold? Does wearing an emu and a kangaroo on your spandex running togs make you destined to win, and failure an anomaly?
Or is Australia just a small country whose time in the sporting sunshine is over?
Why the shock?
To some extent, the disappointment is a result of a touch of over-enthusiasm and a dusting of hubris. The Australian Olympic Committee made bold statements before Rio even began, predicting 37 in total, including 13 golds. Later, “Swimming World Magazine” said that the swimmers alone would bag 20 medals.
Team chef de mission Kitty Chiller was on record saying 16 golds were for the taking. With these numbers, 5th in the world was expected.
So you could say that expectations were high.
In a way, Australia has become spoilt by international success. There is an ingrained belief that this is the little country who could, who have the blood of genius-grafters like Donald Bradman in their veins, and is destined to keep winning.
The fairy story of Sydney 2000, with its 16 golds out of a total of 58, transformed into the new norm, an aspirational number that has somehow become the bench mark.
Since then, the momentum has gone out of the Australian machine. The numbers show a clear pattern:
• Athens: 50
• Beijing: 46
• London: 35
Of course, the right people saw these numbers and took action. Which is perhaps why even the administrators were shocked by this whimper of an effort. Because they had a plan. A very expensive plan.
What’s the problem?
After London, Winning Edge was introduced. This 10-year programme was designed to target sports in which Australians have the best chance of bagging a medal, diverting funds from sports that do not. The end result, according to sporting expert Roy Masters “involves handing sports a bucket of money and placing them in charge of their own destiny”.
Winning Edge put a diverse range of chair people in place over the main Olympic sports, and divided up around AU$ 300 million proportionally between them. Of course the big hitters of swimming, rowing, sailing and cycling received close to $30 million each. At the same time, the Australian Institute of Sport received a budget cut and ceased to have the oversight of previous years.
Team sports got 25% of the cash bonanza, which is doled out according to the potential of each sport. Therefore, the surprise gold-winner women’s rugby 7s were only gifted $6.9 million.
Another criticism of Winning Edge is that it is not limited to the Olympics, and oversees the Pan Pacifics, Commonwealth Games and World Championships. Each sport’s results at each of these championships is taken into account the next time the money is allocated, which means perhaps Australian disciplines are spreading themselves too thinly. Cycling Australia CEO Nick Green claims that the expectation to perform at the world championships means that they “need to master an August peak and we haven’t nailed that yet”.
From the outset, this system must have looked clever and strategic, but in the end undermines the spirit of sport in Australia. Divisions in the squad have been cited as a reason for poor performances, and seem particularly acute between the swimmers and the rest of the team. Traditionally, the swimmers have picked up a disproportionate number of the medals, and there is a sense that they see themselves as a cut above.
There were rumours of exclusivity and swimmers feeling entitled to impose their own slogans and mascots on the entire team.
This argument has been refuted by many close to the team, and certainly the “toxic” atmosphere of the previous Olympics has largely been shut down. There was an absence of visible meltdowns and outright anger this time around.
Broadly speaking, though, a shooter is hardly likely to miss the target because a swimmer didn’t pass them the water at dinner. What matters is size. Cutting funding for the AIS is never going to improve the country’s performance. And Winning Edge has received plenty of flack.
But Australia’s greatest problem is not that they have suddenly become bad: the rest of the world has caught up.
Australia invested in sport in a financial and cultural sense, and this is still the case. But over the last decade, the world took notice. There has been a brain drain as Aussie coaches have taken up posts around the world.
So imagine applying Australian sporting know-how to a country which has five or ten times as many people. China can draw on 1.3 billion people, so by definition they have more talent on which to draw.
Maybe Australia didn’t get bad. Maybe the rest of the world just got better.
Where to now?
Defenders of Winning Edge claim that it is a 10-year programme, so should be judged in another five years. The transition will take time. But it would seem that the crucial element in play is money.
Australians punched at their calculators and spluttered with horror when they realised that each medal cost the tax-payer AU$ 8 million. But this actually compares favourably with most countries around the world. The USA spent over AU$ 1 billion on their team at the games: so even with their colossal haul of 101, that works out as roughly equivalent to Australia.
Great Britain spent AU$ 600 million: again, this equates to 10 million per medal.
Australia is a small nation with a passion for sport, so basically these numbers show that you can have as many medals as you desire: but you have to pay the bill.
Great Britain has enjoyed a new flowering of sporting prowess after decades of being a global joke. It is no coincidence that this was based on a massive injection of cash. Team GB is the beneficiary of money from the National Lottery, and there is a push from experts in Australia to follow this lead.
For better, but mainly for worse, Australians often see themselves through the prism of sport in a global sense. Maybe this is why sporting failure hurts so badly.