Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Twenty Grand Well Spent

You have to wonder why anyone would bother trying to be an Olympic athlete.

You need to devote your life to achieving something that you know may not occur purely because something in your body snaps at the wrong moment; but you don’t think about that – gotta keep focused – you just keep puting in the hours training.

Your friends are out late drinking and dancing, and dancing and loving, loving and drinking (you are only young once you know, gotta live it up a little!) but you go to bed early because the next day promises more training, more weights, more punishment.

If you are a rower or swimmer you will wake up at some ungodly hour and dive into a pool even though it’s mid winter, or you will put the boat on the lake even though the fog is such that you cannot see your team mates already out on the water going through their paces.

If you are a long distance runner, you will wake up at some ungodly hour and run 15 kilometres through a forest, over hills on dirt tracks with members of your club and when you finish you know you’ll be doing it again that afternoon, or perhaps it’ll be a session of repetition running, where you will push yourself for 1500m through a forest, over hills on dirt tracks and then rest for 60 seconds and then push yourself for another 1500m. And again. And again. And again.

English champion distance runner Brendan Foster once said that “all top international athletes wake up in the morning feeling tired and go to bed feeling very tired.” He came third in the 10,000m at the Montreal Olympics. Pretty amazing really, the only ones in the world who could beat him were the supreme Lasse Viren, winner of three other Olympic Gold Medals; and Carlos Lopes, who would go on to destroy Australian hopes by beating Deek in the Marathon in LA in 1984.

But what that means is for all his adult life up to that point Foster had woken up tired, put his body through hell, denied himself those luxuries and joys non-athletes and footy players take for granted, went to be feeling very tired, only to come third in the one race that mattered. (Because all that pain guarantees nothing).

The tennis player with a 10 year career will have a chance to compete in 40 Grand Slam tournaments, ditto golfers and the majors (though their careers are much longer). The tour de France is on every year. Footy players talk of next season even when the current season still has 10 rounds to go.

But for those foolish souls who have picked a sport which has the Olympics as the pinnacle lives a life measured in leap years, and know that they will be fortunate to get to one, unlikely to make two, and among the rarefied (and perhaps lucky) few if they get to three.

And because these men and women are in the public eye we feel free to criticise.

We are incredibly hard on sportsmen and women. We judge them according to standards we could never meet ourselves. Roger Federer puts a backhand down the line into the net, and we sigh ruefully and think that he’s not quite as good as he used to be. Greg Norman wins 87 tournaments worldwide, but because he only won 2 majors, he is forever an underachiever, forever linked with choking. Tamsyn Lewis gets run out of in the heats of the 800m World Championships, and the critics let fly.

And you know what? Fair enough. Federer isn’t as good as he once was, Norman should have won more majors, and Tamsyn Lewis needs to bloody well perform when it matters most.

But while I have no problems with judging sports people for not performing as well as they themselves would wish to, I remain in awe of them. And my ultimate respect is again for those poor fools who chose to pursue Olympic glory.

For the most part, events which have the Olympics as the ultimate are not accompanied by loads of cash. But they do what they do, getting the odd sponsor to help pay costs of travel and equipment. If they are lucky they have an AIS scholarship; if they are very lucky they are an Australian swimmer; if they are really lucky, they are an attractive, champion, world record breaking, all-round nice guy Australian swimmer.

Consider the comparison: Brendan Fevola a guy who sometimes can be bothered to play footy, but most times cannot, was reputedly offered a $2 million 3 year contract. And he knocked it back. This year, in the richest athletics competition in the world, the IAAF Golden League, a $1 million prize is on offer to anyone who can win his or her event at ALL six Golden League meets. If two athletes do it, they get $500k each, and so on.

So to earn more than Brendan Fevola you only have to go undefeated against everyone in the world who does your event, and hope that no one also does the same in another event. The best will of course get appearance money, but even then you don't need to understand advanced mathematics to work out who's got the sweeter deal.

But this year at Beijing, if nothing snaps when it shouldn’t, and the day that matters most is the day when that Australian athlete puts everything together, and they win the gold, well then they get $20,000 from the Australian Government.

And cue the outrage. Conservative commentators love such stories. It allows them to decry a waste of public money; money for taxpayers that should be spent on... err something... you know...hospitals... schools and... hey I do my job day in day out, where’s my medal?

Those damn Gold medallists, all living on the high hog, then wanting to grab our precious money? Bastards. Why should we give Grant Hackett money (always good to choose the one Olympic champion you know has managed to make some money in sponsorship)? If their sport doesn’t pay them well enough well then they should chose another sport! They only play games.

To such critics, I say fine, you’re entitled to your view point, just please don’t watch the Olympics.

Every Australian athlete in Beijng will have to varying degrees received some form of Government support. If you are against such things, then don’t watch. Turn over and watch the CSI repeats on Channel 9. And if you do by accident find the television is showing an Australian winning gold in any event, then don’t for the love of God enjoy it, because I wouldn’t want your philosophical values impunged.

Because why is the $20,000 being paid? It’s not saying, look we really have no bloody idea what to do with this money, but we found under the cushions of the front bench, so you might as well have it.

It’s not even an incentive bonus. It’s a small way of saying well done and thank you.

Like it or not Australians love sport. And like it or not Australians love Australians winning sports, and above all we love Australians wining sport at the Olympics.

I love sport more than most, and I love track and field above all sports. A true highlight of my life was the night I was at the Sydney Olympics watching the men’s long jump final. Everyone in that stadium clapped, cheered and had their heart beating in unison as Jai Taurima battled with Sotomayor for Gold.

Another highlight was when I stood with a crowd of close to 10,000 in Olympic Park outside the stadium watching on a big screen Cathy Freeman win the 400m. At this point strangers were hugging each other, world peace was achievable, the planets were aligned and would be forever more.

Would I be prepared to pay my share of the $20,000 to feel that again? Heck yeah.

Let’s say there's 10 million tax payers, that’s about 0.2 cents per gold medal. That’s pretty cheap for a return of feeling great about your country. Ask yourself what else the Government spends money on that makes you feel so proud to be Australian?

And do all those rich athletes deserve more money than they’ll know what to do with? I don’t know; let’s ask any members of the Australian 2004 men’s hockey team, seen any of them on your cereal box? What about those rich swimmers, you know Bill Kirby or Todd Pearson – they won Gold at Sydney in the relays. Obviously they’ve been too busy counting their cash since then to be bothered fronting up this time round.

At Sydney, one of the highlights was the women’s water polo team beating the American’s in the last seconds. Think any of them are wealthy because of it?

All I know is I was richer for having experienced the joy of their win.

$20,000? It’s cheap. Pay your fifth of a cent, switch on and enjoy.

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