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London Olympics: Where is Australia?

By Monica Attard, for CNN
updated 11:40 AM EDT, Tue August 7, 2012
Tom Slingsby celebrates on the podium after winning gold in the Laser sailing class on August 6. Tom Slingsby celebrates on the podium after winning gold in the Laser sailing class on August 6.
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Tom Slingsby
James Magnussen
Mitchell Watt
Stephanie Rice
Sally Pearson
Emily Seebohm
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Australia is currently 19th on the gold medal table with just two golds
  • Failure to win medals in London has prompted soul-searching
  • Athletes have criticized local media for putting emphasis on winning gold

Sydney (CNN) -- Thank the Olympic Gods for Tom Slingsby.

Before this week, few Australians would have known of him. But this week, he has catapulted himself to national sainthood, winning Australia's second gold medal, this one in sailing.

Australia has been in distress since the London Olympics began, watching a parlous performance in the pool where it usually performs exceedingly well. But there has been no Beijing haul of gold for the country's swimmers in London; just one gold in the women's 4 x 100 freestyle relay event, and nothing for the individual swims.

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As a result, this sporting nation has been thrown into an identity crisis of sorts, played out in public as a tussle over what it means to be Australian. There are those who argue a poor gold medal tally is an appalling reflection of Australia's sporting prowess and an even worse for its self-esteem, playing out as it has on the international stage.

Worse still, at number 19 in the gold medals table, it lags painfully behind Great Britain whose sporting achievements Australia likes to think it has and can always trump. And, for many Australians, the distinct possibility that New Zealand might walk away from this Olympic Games with more medals would be too much to bear.

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And there's the more sober view that sees getting to the Olympics at all -- let alone winning lots of silver -- as an achievement. In this camp, being gracious losers is as important as being great winners. And that Australia's great hope, James Magnussen missed gold in the 100 meters freestyle by 1/100th of a second is to be worn as a badge of honor: we were that good.

So furious has the public flogging of Australia's performance been, that long jumper Mitchell Watt who walked away with a silver medal for his efforts, gave the media a blast.

"I think people need to start understanding that it is not easy to win an Olympic gold medal and there is absolutely nothing wrong with a silver medal," said Watt.

The problem, as Watt sees it, is that the media views silver and bronze as disappointing results.

"The team is happy, the coach is happy. I got thousands of messages [from] back home that they are happy. The only people that are not happy are you guys. So you need to wake up," he admonished.

Still the critics are not silenced. As Slingsby won gold for the Laser class single-handed dinghies sailing event and Australia looked guaranteed to win another gold on the water, the headlines have been kinder but carry barely disguised missives of shame.

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"Sailors come to Australia's Olympic rescue" blared SBS online. "Between them the sailors could spare the blushes of an Australian contingent that has been performing solidly without being able to convert seconds and thirds into Olympic titles."

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And there was this from Yahoo!7Sport: "Pearson defends Australia's medal haul," in which hurdler Sally Pearson echoed Mitchell Watt's frustration with local disappointment.

Across the Tasman, there was the anticipated barb: "Australia back to its old self with gold".

The near empty satchel of gold has inspired a review of Australia's swimming performance. Ordered by Swimming Australia, at its head will be former national head coach Bill Sweetenham and Olympian Suzie O'Neill. The aim will be to come up with a formula to prevent another national humiliation at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in two years time. But more than this, the aim will be to find out what went wrong in London.

Was it team disunity? Or too much pre-event tweeting? Maybe the work ethic of the current crop isn't what it should be? Are the best of Australia's swimming coaches being lured by big dollars to train Chinese nationals? And a seemingly ridiculous question: should bearded swimmers be compelled to shave? Could it have been Magnusson's beard that ended his run for gold? It is all open to investigation, though Suzie O'Neill says there'll be no witch-hunt.

In a nation accustomed to winning in sport, expectations are invariably high. Rarely is the concomitant pressure on competitors taken into account.

As U.S. Open winner Sam Stosur has found, the weight of great expectation on your shoulders, is a viscerally grueling pressure. Bundled out in the first round at the 2012 Australian Open, before an audience expecting her to win after her New York triumph, took its toll.

"For sure it affects you physically, that's probably the easiest sign for the outside people to see," she told a media conference after her loss. "I think it is easy to see that you tighten up, your shoulders do get tight, you don't hit through the ball."

Young James Magnusson, head buried in hands as he digested his loss, put it this way: "You come to the realization that I would've preferred a different colored medal but the funny thing is that all I wanted to do after the race was see my parents.

''You start to get a realization of what is important. Everything's come so easy for me early in my career and I've taken it for granted," he said.

The President of the Australian Olympic Committee John Coates believes the problem is not one of high expectations. That comes with the turf in elite sports.

For Coates, the London problem might be eradicated in the future by reintroducing compulsory school sports. Though he warned last November that not enough money was flowing to the state-administered sports institutes to ensure the expected 45 medal haul in London, Coates doesn't think funding is an issue in Australian swimming.

"I think there is enough money in the system, they're just not necessarily spending it wisely," he told local media. The highest ranked Australian on the International Olympic Committee Kevin Gosper begs to differ. Money, he says, is the difference between gold and silver.

The post mortem will be painful. If anyone is hoping it will be long as well, it is the Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who's parlous political position and poor polling has been off the front pages as the nation licks the wounds of a dented ego.

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