We're several days into the games now, and feats of heroism are starting to appear. So are some spectacular falls and failures. Seriously, we all knew these stories were coming; for every triumph there is an equal failure, you can see the headlines in multiple countries every morning; "Swimmer/Diver/Rower/Cyclist fails spectacularly to live up to our expectations of them". Who's to blame? The athlete? The media? Or even, woe betide... us?
A number of champions spring to mind; Mark Cavendish, and Tom Daley for starters, but lets for a minute take the Australian mens 4x100m freestyle relay team. Feted as Olympic-champions-in-waiting, they were lauded by the Australian media as the "WMDs" (Yes, weapons of mass destruction. Really.) They learnt the hard way on Sunday night that qualifying fastest doesn't mean you'll win. Or even get a medal. During the 2011 world swimming championships in Shanghai, a young kid named James Magnussen blew the field away, and ever since he's been dubbed "The Missile" by the media. What a name to live up to. This is his first Olympic games, and he started first on Sunday night, expecting to blow the field apart. He didn't. Sections of the media politely responded with "chokers".
Who puts the weight of expectation on the shoulders of these champions? We hear too often the reactive response that the athletes had themselves to blame, that they had inflated egos, or that they were too overconfident in their abilities. The next time that thought comes to your mind, remember that these guys are in fact competing, in front of billions, against the world's best, all at the very pinnacle of their talent and fitness. Now, I used to do a bit of competitive swimming when I was in high school (right next to my aussie surf life saving competitions. Yes. Really. ). I was actually a little bit good at it, too. But swimming next to my own super talented school mates was nervewracking enough as it was. If that was me out there on the Olympic starting block, and the last thought that crossed my mind before I took off was that failure in front of billions was possibly imminent, and coming at me in the next 10 seconds, I think I'd probably brick myself and go hide my head in the long jump pit. No wonder these super talented Olympians would block that thought from their mind. Believing you're invincible is the only way to win. And I'm fairly sure that they all believe in their heart of hearts they're invincible and unbeatable. Unfortunately, we forget too often that only one of the crazily talented invincible individuals gets to win.
We understand why the media does this. It sells news papers. It boosts ratings. The pressure put on the Australian swimming team by local media is immense. Arguably, the media just wanted these four to recreate the narrative from Sydney 2000; the sensational 4x100m men's freestyle relay win when Australia triumphed in world record time over the USA in the great "Smash Them Like Guitars" battle between some of the greatest swimming names of all time. That was a moment in time. It's not designed to be recreated. Life, and olympic races don't work like that. Let them be their own people. Don't brand them in ways they can't live up to. This time around, France triumphed over the USA and Russia in stunning fashion. This is now a new narrative for the race, and a story for the French to cherish until Rio.
The front page of one Australian daily newspaper made my point beautifully this morning, whose byline read "How James Magnussen can swim his way to redemption". Redemption from whom exactly? Himself? A public out for his blood? Or media outfits left with overhyped egg on their faces? Australian swimmer Emily Seebohm admitted this afternoon that she paid too much credence to her own social media hype, whipped up by fans who thought she had the gold in the bag for the 100m backstroke final. However she didn't come last. She actually got silver. She's a champion. Media hype in Australia is strong, and it has clearly filtered through to the team. Others in the team don't suffer from the same taglines and bylines, and have managed to escape the spotlight rather well. More power to them.
In the end, they all just make their mums and dads proud.
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