There has been a lot of hand-wringing going on in the Australian media (and its commentariat) in the last three days, as the Australian Olympic team has competed in various sports and obtained a lower number of medals that, apparently, it was "supposed" to. The most prominent example of this is the excruciating dissections of the men's 100m freestyle relay, in which Australia was confidently predicted to take the gold medal, and didn't end up with any medal at all (swimming fourth). Plenty of other competitors who haven't met the expectations of the journalists have also come in for critique, though, from the rowers to the basketballers, the beach volleyballers, plenty of swimmers, and even, to a lesser extent (because they weren't really predicted to make the team finals) the gymnasts.
It leaves a bad taste in my mouth, all this, and I'm doing a lot of talking to the older kids about the ways in which it's problematic. These are new conversations for us. We're not a sporty family - aside from a casual interest in summer cricket we don't generally watch televised sport, and only one of us (my 7 year old, who is a gymnast) participates in any competition sport. (Well, my 9 year old dances, and does do examinations for ballet, but there, one is only competing against oneself).
We've talked about all sorts of things with this - about why people might focus on the negative aspects rather than the positive; about how much work and effort goes into preparing for an elite sporting event; about how good, strong, and skilled all the athletes at this Games are. We've talked about how people can have bad days or bad performances, even when they're really well prepared overall; my 9 year old, who suffers from stage fright with her dancing, remarked feelingly "Nerves can make it all feel wrong, even when you know what to do." We've talked about the great performances given by athletes from other countries, and why there isn't more coverage of their achievements ("I want to see lots of people winning, Mum, not just the Australians!" said the 7 year old).
Drilling deeper, we have also picked over the other lines of critique, around James Magnussen's perceived hubris before his event and alleged sulking after it; around the amount of money spent on preparing this team for the Games; and on the issue of sport as a modern circus, distracting attention from local and global problems that seem so hard and intractable.
I think it's important for the kids to be exposed to these ideas, at an age-appropriate level. I do not subscribe to the idea that "real Australians" can never question anything about the value, costliness or importance of sport; I don't think it makes us unpatriotic to consider whether Olympic triumph is a useful end in itself, worthy of the not-minor spending it attracts. I myself do question whether the amount of money expended is justified, even as I recognise and celebrate the feats of the human body that these Olympians produce. I believe Olympic sport is a form of theatre, but one that has a real psychosocial benefit to offer some individuals and most nations. I have been enjoying taking my girls through the pros and cons and exposing them to different viewpoints on the subject.
My 9 year old, however, came up with a great insight on her own, drawing together these various threads. She wondered aloud whether the negative, almost vitriolic, reaction to the Australian team's medal results to date was, in fact, partially a result of how much money and hype had been invested in it.
"It's like people are saying, We paid for gold medals! Where are our gold medals?" she said.
I then chipped in with, "Yes, I think that's right, hon, but they are forgetting a few things in there, aren't they?"
The 7 year old said, with emphasis: "Yeah, they are forgetting that all the OTHER countries paid a lot of money to train their people too!"
The 9 year old nodded. "And, that it depends what happens on the day. And, even if someone doesn't win a gold medal, it doesn't mean they did terrible, it just means someone else was better. On that day."
The 7 year old went all thoughtful. "I like seeing Australians win," she mused, "but, then, I like watching anyone win. They all look so happy. It's exciting to watch them. I like watching the ones who do really well but don't win, too."
"Winning has to be their goal," I agreed, "but not winning this time doesn't make them a loser, or a disappointment, does it?"
"No, it just makes them not perfect," agreed the 9 year old. "Next time they might do better. They might learn how, from not winning this time."
I think they get it.
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