Faster, higher, awesomer at absolutely bloody everything
The Greco-Roman wrestling is not widely remembered as one of the high points of the Sydney Olympics.
It gets squeezed out by a few other things, like Cathy Freeman winning gold in the 400m, Jane Saville breaking down upon her disqualification just metres from the finish line in the walking, the women’s water polo team robbing the Yanks on the siren, the swimmers winning pretty much everything, their sweetest victory against the cocky American men’s relay team.
Golden moments all. But it was at the Greco Roman wrestling – that gladiatorial contest where blokes called Vitek and Krysto try to give each other wedgies - where I witnessed an Olympic moment so golden it almost made me weep tears of joy at being lucky enough to have been born in this absurd and excellent little country of ours.
It didn’t involve Australia winning gold. It involved a couple of rolled-gold Australian bogans who, despite being unemployed and possibly unemployable, had done what they regarded as their national duty in buying the cheapest tickets on offer at the Games - $14 bleacher seats for the wrestling at the Exhibition Centre – and were sitting way up the back and cheering their hearts out for Australia.
They had painted their faces green and gold. They had Australian flags draped around their necks. They were drinking a lot of beer. And they said that they couldn’t care less that, on the day they were there at Darling Harbour, there wasn’t a single, solitary Australian competing in the wrestling at all, and continued to scream “AUSSIE AUSSIE AUSSIEEEEEE” for three hours as men with moustaches from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan took to the mat and grabbed each other on the arse.
Aside from demonstrating our natural genius for self-deprecation, the inspired conduct of these two yobbos showed how Australians can whip themselves into a state of hysterical nationalistic fervour over anything to do with sport.
There was another pointer from the Sydney Games – the way in which we embraced Tatiana Gregorieva, a spectacular-looking chick from the outer suburbs of Vladivostok who had been living here for all of five minutes, and hailed her as Our Tatiana, Aussie Tatiana, cheering her on as she showed that – for too bloody long quite frankly – this plucky little nation of ours had been an unrecognised global powerhouse in, er, women’s pole vault.
Proving that the best insight on a nation’s character often comes from outsiders, a great Irish mate of mine in Sydney, Punch colleague Paul Colgan, says he always marvels at how phrases such as “first Tuesday in November” and “last Saturday in September” and even the mention of both Boxing Day and New Year’s Day are immediately recognised by almost every Australian for their promise of unbridled sporting joy.
This is the pathology which Sports Minister Kate Ellis is grappling with as she negotiates her way through the Crawford Report on sports funding, released yesterday, as part of the continuing national conversation about the role of sport and funding of sport in Australia.
There has been a pre-emptive fear campaign coming from some sports ahead of the report’s release saying that archery/hockey/darts/lacrosse/curling plays such an underrated but important role in our collective psyche that any reduction in government funding would destroy the fabric of the nation.
The tone of this campaign has exposed another curious thing about Australia. We can often lack the ability for honest self-analysis. You hear people all the time in business talk sagely about how corruption and the greasing of hands is “accepted as the norm” in Asia, blissfully ignoring everything from the Wollongong Council inquiry to Brian Burke to the Queensland CJC to Nathan Rees’ declaration only on Saturday that he’s banning developer donations to eliminate any suggestion that property moguls are buying access to government. In the same way, Australians talk disapprovingly about how a nation such as China is apparently “buying” gold medals by creating super-athletes with its state-sponsored programs, in much the same way that, during the Cold War, every Eastern European team was seen as the unfair beneficiary of government largesse.
The reality is that – since the apparent horror that was Montreal in 1976 where we failed to win a single gold medal – Australia has put Cuba to shame in the area of state-sponsored sport.
And people such as the AOC’s John Coates, who had a bit of a sook upon the release of the report yesterday, insist they’re not arguing taxpayers underwrite the lesser sports in perpetuity, while arguing for pretty much exactly that.
Surely it is about time we had a national discussion about the extent to which we will subsidy sports which hardly anybody plays? Or whether, in a brazen quest for gold, it is wise and fair to channel public money into fringe sports (which are often only played by individuals not teams) to bump up the medal tally on a short-term basis? Are we a better nation because Michael Diamond is good at shooting things? In this coastal nation of mad swimmers and beach nuts, do we have to be number one in the world in hockey?
And why are the unsung volunteers who help run our mass community sports such as rugby league, soccer and AFL destined to remain unsung, unrecognised and unsupported by government - is it simply because we can’t win gold medals for volunteering?
Those notoriously parsimonious right-wing folk at the Institute of Public Affairs – who essentially don’t think public money should ever be spent on anything – did some interesting modelling after the Sydney Olympics which calculated that every single medal we won (that’s gold, silver and bronze) had cost taxpayers about $3 million a pop.
In a provocative think piece last month, IPA member Chris Berg cut to the chase with this line:
“Most people care about volleyball for only 10 minutes every four years - and even then only if the sport rises above the din of other Olympic events. Can anybody name an Australian volleyball player?”
The opposite argument is being put with maximum vigour by the Federal Opposition, which has seized on the Crawford Report to argue that the Rudd Government has jeopardised the very essence of our being.
The report opens a debate about whether Australia should continue to strive for a top-five finish in the Olympic Games, or whether a top-ten finish is more realistic and feasible as a benchmark for our international performance, given our relative size against other nations.
Shadow sports minister Andrew Southcott is having none of it.
“This report is preparing us for a decline in our overall standing,” Southcott said.
The Opposition line seems to be a deliberate misreading of the report. The Minister has given a categorical on-the-record undertaking that funding for the so-called lesser sports will not be cut - even though many sporting groups say that without increases, they will be suffering cuts in real terms.
The issue isn’t really about cuts or increases. What the report is really trying to do – surely a welcome thing in this sports-mad country of ours – is to make a philosophical point as to how we measure our success, and to question whether we automatically greenlight every future request for funding increases to meet expectations which are so high as to be ludicrous.
Still, I don’t know why they went to all the trouble of getting David Crawford to write a fancy document asking that question.
Those two blokes at the Greco-Roman wrestling could have answered on behalf of the nation. As long as we don’t lose to the Poms again we will all be happy. If the Rudd Government can remember that it shouldn’t have any problems.
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