The Australian athlete who won gold for grace in defeat
I sat next to Matthew Mitcham on the plane to Beijing. He asked me a question that no man has before or since. As the plane hurtled down the runway, I was fumbling with the words to the Lord’s Prayer when Mitcham turned to me and said: “Do you like musicals?”
I enjoy musicals about as much as knee reconstructions. Or plane trips. As Mitcham talked and talked about one show tune or another, I became convinced a mental patient wearing an official Olympic tracksuit had been let loose on the plane. The next time I looked out the window we were approaching 20,000-feet.
Of course, once the landing gear was folded away it became clear that helping a stranger to overcome a morbid fear of take-off was his intention from the start. That’s the type of guy Matt Mitcham is.
This was a few days before Mitcham performed the perfect dive in the platform event to win gold, an extraordinary feat that should rate in this country’s top 10 Olympic moments.
At the world swimming championships in Rome this week, he has been accused of being too nice for his own good. He bombed out of his pet event, not only failing to beat British teen machine Thomas Daly for the gold, but missing the medals altogether.
Mitcham could have been forgiven for falling in a heap and feeling he had lost everything when he duffed his final dive on Wednesday. It was the same routine that caused Australian lounge rooms to fall silent last August, but this time his balance deserted him. He mistimed his entry to the water, hitting the pool with more force than a fat uncle on Boxing Day.
But here’s what Mitcham had to say about his 15-year-old rival Daly: “I really do support him. He is a very talented and very well-mannered, polite and friendly young man.”
“I don’t really want to say his name because he tends to feel pressure quite a lot. He has a lot of pressure put on him and doesn’t dive quite as well when the pressure is put on him.”
“I think he could take over the world if he wanted to. He is something I have never seen before. I respect him.”
As Australian sports fans, we don’t know what to make of all this grace in defeat. We have been led to believe that petulant sooks like Lleyton Hewett and Ricky Ponting are really just passionate competitors. They reserve the right to throw tantrums and be sullen in defeat because, well, they love their country.
Next to your average AFL or NRL player, Mitcham looks incredibly well adjusted. He’s not a rock star Olympian who drinks at the Cargo Bar and plasters his photos all over Facebook after one too many Midori and pineapples. He’s not glassing anybody or bemoaning the pressures of success.
And the downside for him is that this wholesome lifestyle adds up to almost zero publicity.
Asked if he should have been more ruthless towards Daly this week, Mitcham replied: “It’s not the way I work. I believe in karma.”
Rather than question his lack of killer instinct, we should be working on taking Mitcham’s message to a sporting public that has come to see fair play as a weakness.
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