Just playing

Saturday’s leading front page article should make us all nauseous. But it probably won’t. $310m of our taxes have been spent so that the fitter of our compatriots can play games on our behalf, and for our pleasure. And sports officials want more. Perhaps they might reflect a little longer on the Olympic Oath, with its dedication to “the glory of sport and the honour of our teams.” Medals don’t rate a mention there.

But then again, perhaps it’s unfair to single them out. They’re not the only ones playing games. Our politicians, also in our name, spend quite a bit playing games with the ecosystem and the lives of the poor and marginalised at home and abroad, while temperatures slowly rise, islands slowly disappear, desperate people drown, carers just survive, the homeless shiver, and the world’s poorest die of hunger.

Not a lot of difference, really. Guess we’ll just keep on going for gold. Simpler that way.

What we don’t want

Spot on, Tony Burns. 1 Public funding of sport is plenty high enough already. The front page 2 should say it all. Half the games still to go, and we’ve started the autopsy without the coroner. And right below a headline about corruption in racing, to the surprise of no one, surely. Has money commonly enhanced the social value of sport? Come to that, where has it ennobled us?

Stop medalling

So, the Aussie commentariat is obsessing over medals? Well honestly, is anyone truly surprised? We have this same discussion through letters, talkback and (more recently) social media, over every Olympics, every Commonwealth Games, and any international sports meet where any Australian participants or teams are either dominant or rising. We endure the nauseating jingoism screamed into microphones, the endless loop of compatriots crossing the line (at the front, of course), the collective drool over the state of the national psyche (colloquially, the comparative medal tally), the worship of heroes and the angst over also-rans, and then the Freudian analysis of our failures. Then we go back to life, until the next chance at tribal glory, when we do it all again.

Maybe one day, enough people will ask why. It’s too easy to scapegoat the popular media. Ultimately, in chasing ratings, they merely give us what they conclude we want. Governments, enslaved to 3-year electoral cycles and ubiquitous polls, do something similar. So in the end, its down to those on the lounge chair side of the screen. Do we want to be part of a nation that spends billions developing elite athletes, and pays them more than Prime Ministers? The tone of the commentary suggests we do. And unless the medal tally picks up, here’s to another fortnight of Pavlovian frenzy.

But don’t despair, Australia. There’s always the next Commonwealth Games, where we’ll be the big kids in the sandpit again. Because sport is life, isn’t it.

Oh by the way, that last rumble from deep in the ground. Maybe it wasn’t a seismological event after all. I fancy it may have been Baron de Coubertin sighing.


The lengthy coverage of the Australian team’s entrance meant the arrival of the Austrian team was overlooked. I’m a proud Australian, but as an ex-Austrian I feel short-changed.
Erich Goetz, Mornington 3

Take comfort, Mr Goetz. American know-how has surely redeemed your national pride. NBC News’ Olympics website identified Australia as “… located in central Europe, bordered to the north by Germany and the Czech Republic …” and “… primarily mountainous.”

Not the Olympics

Modern Olympic Movement pioneer Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s mind would be exercised by more than in-flight gender discrimination between athletes. Were he to return from the grave now, he’d be perplexed at best (dismayed at worst) to learn that handsomely remunerated professional sportspeople are even participating. Though not opposed to games athletes receiving some financial recompense for income lost whilst competing, his vision was premised on the capacity of athletic competition to promote understanding and harmony between cultures, when played between amateurs for whom competing itself was chief among rewards.

De Coubertin may scarcely recognise the 21st century’s take on the Olympic dream. When complex political machinations precede the selection of every host city and nation, when the hosts are judged and judge themselves by their own medal tally and the glamour of the opening ceremony, when the city’s poor are temporarily abolished to impress the tourists, when only the First World can dish up enough glitz to adorn the flat screens of the West, when nations like our’s invest billions scaling the heights of their jingoistic pride, when television networks jostle for the promised windfall, and when a place on the podium is worth the risk of performance-enhancing drugs …

When it’s come to all this, the Baron himself would likely fly economy.

Fair play

At the risk of causing economists to choke with hysterical laughter, here’s my prescription for restoring equity, good sense and goodwill to the Commonwealth Games. (Substitute “Olympic, etc.” as applicable.)

Adopt a standard “template” (including time limits) for the opening and closing ceremonies, expressed in cultural forms appropriate to the host nation.

Establish an international Games Equity Fund (GEF), administered and invested by a panel from the wealthiest participating nations, and audited by a panel from the poorest. Funds for the GEF would be raised by a compulsory levy on participating nations, assessed by a formula applied to each nation’s GDP, with a GDP cut-off below which no levy is payable.

The GEF would be used first to finance the costs to the five poorest nations of fielding their teams. The balance would then be payable to the host nation to cover the opening and closing ceremonies. The host nation can add to this amount as much as it chooses, on the condition that the investment is matched dollar-for-dollar by a supplementary contribution to the GEF, toward the next-following games.

Sport-obsessed? … or something worse?

Now that the torch has been put to bed for another few years, how about some national reflection? Some letters to The Age, and several conversations I’ve shared, have indicated thinning interest in these Olympics, if not in sport more generally.

Triggers for this might include:

– Unanswered integrity questions surrounding drug cheating controversies.

– The soap opera like saga of Ian Thorpe and Craig Stevens, and other selection battles.

– Seven’s general inclination to televise Aussie victories ad nauseaum.

– The treatment meted out from many quarters to Sally Robbins, for daring to be mortal at an inconvenient time.

And that’s only the Olympics! Then there’s:

– The millions we invest toward sporting success.

– The dumping on Shane Warne for his admittedly foolish behaviour eighteen months ago.

What have I missed? Oh yes, the prospect of a home advantage in the Commonwealth Games in just nineteen months, with no Americans, Chinese or Russians to assail our gold-dependent national ego.

If only we were merely sport mad; that would be forgivable and even fun. But if sporting ascendancy has become integral to our identity, then something is seriously wrong. Innocence, honesty and fairness may then be the worst casualties. Just sport-crazy? I hope so.