Don’t forget East Germany won 37 gold medals once…

Sometimes a gold medal is only a gold medal.

That may hard for some people to believe, particularly in the media, but the fact is that the Olympic medal tally is not a fool-proof barometer of the state of Australia.

Yes, some of our swimmers went slower than they had hoped, and some of our sailors went faster. This is not proof that we “punch above our weight” in anything except sport – or that we are victim of declining standards or a growing “sense of entitlement”, or whatever other claims people want to make.

If a country’s success could be judged by its medal tally, then East Germany, with 37 gold medals at the 1988 Olympics from a population similar to Australia’s, must have been one of the most successful societies on earth. Instead the repressive East German regime fell apart the following year and was absorbed by democratic West Germany (who had won a disappointing 11 gold medals).

The idea that Australia’s sense of nationhood depends on our medal tally is only pushed by people trying to sell newspapers or who have an axe to grind.

Despite the hype they’re not “our” medals. They belong to the people who worked hard to win them, and the families, friends, coaches and sporting clubs who supported them.

I’m not an Olympics-hater. Far from it, but I wanted to try and deflate some of the hype before talking about what I like about the Games.

The Olympics are like a holiday for the world. They show us what both the human body and the human spirit are capable of achieving. You don’t have to be a sports nut to appreciate what athletes spend years training themselves to do and the sacrifices they have to make.

The Olympics are a chance for us to see what the rest of the world looks like, and remind us that the expressions of joy in victory and sadness in defeat are the same the world over. Young, dedicated athletes are the best ambassadors that countries can have.

At the risk of reading too much into the medal tally, I’ll make the observation that direct government investment in sport -whether in China, the UK or Australia –  has led to success. Maybe a lesson for the IPA and others who criticise assistance to our car industry?

One of the best things about the Olympics in my view is the emphasis on women’s sport. In fact there’s probably more women’s sport on commercial television during the Olympics than during the previous four years.

To see women’s sport given the credit and attention it deserves is extremely heartening for anyone who believes in equality.

Seeing female athletes from Saudi Arabia compete for the first time sends a strong message to women in that country.

To see women such as Sally Pearson, who are famous for their achievements rather than just their looks, presented as role models for young girls can only be healthy. Australia’s female Olympians have always won a disproportionately high number of medals, which may be the case again this Olympics.

Four-time swimming gold medallist Dawn Fraser said that:

Women in this country have always been a lot more gutsy than the men. Women have been the hardest working segment of a nation that had to work its way up from colonial status. They worked longer hours and they worked harder than the men. My Dad worked hard, but after work he relaxed at the pub and at home. Mum could rarely rest. She was always working. I think the ability of women to endure explains a lot of our Olympic success.

That’s Dawn’s opinion, I couldn’t possibly comment.
Despite my appreciation for the Games, it’s time to put them back into perspective. London has done a great job in hosting the Games, but like any host it will be left to clean up when the party is over.

Britain will still need to deal with its stagnant economy and the effects of an austerity program that is straining community cohesion. London will still be grappling with the inequalities and the social dysfunction that fuelled last year’s riots. Unlike in ancient Greece, the civil war in Syria continued throughout the games.

In Australia we will also go back to dealing with the problems we faced before the games started.

My impression is that while Australians have been enjoying the Olympics, there has been less focus on the medal tally than in the past. Polling by Essential Media shows that 58 per cent of Australians are taking some interest in the games, but that only 20 per cent of them are feeling unsatisfied by our performance.

Perhaps we’re aware that Australia’s economy is doing better than the rest of the developed world and we have escaped the massive unemployment of Europe and the USA?

Maybe there’s a recognition that we are secure in our national identity, and that we do not have as much of a cultural cringe as in the past. At a time when Australian actors, scientists and thinkers are succeeding on the world stage, sport becomes less important in building our national self-confidence.

Perhaps we have managed to put sport into its proper perspective, as one of the nice luxuries of life rather than the essentials.

Or maybe we’re just happy to be beating New Zealand.…

About Darin Sullivan (1980 Articles)
Former President of the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union (2009-2018) and a professional firefighter with more than 30 years experience. I live and work on the NSW South Coast, Australia. I am a strong advocate for firefighters and emergency service workers with an interest in mental health issues and caring for those around me. I am a former Director on the NSW Fire Brigades Death and Disability Super Fund and work with charities including ‘The Movember Foundation’. As a leader and activist I have long been active in the campaign for action on climate change. I am a Station Commander in the fire and rescue service in NSW and have 30 years experience fighting fires, both rural and urban. I am passionate about highlighting the impact climate change is having on fire preparedness and fire behaviour in Australia, and the risks associated with inaction on climate change. I am also a spokesperson for the Australian Climate Media Centre.
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