Australians having enjoyed telecasts of the Olympic Games, it is time to reflect on the gross provincialism and extreme nationalism which have characterised much of the media coverage of the London Games over the past two weeks.
The Olympic spirit is not about winning, nor is it about medal tallies. It is an occasion on which athletes come together to compete against one another. It is about good sportsmanship. When have the media said any of this?
The Games are supposed to be a celebration of individual achievement, as the Olympic Charter puts it, “based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles”. Perhaps naïvely, it aims to “to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”.
The persistent efforts of totalitarian regimes to politicise the event — from Hitler’s Olympics in Berlin in 1936, to the Moscow Games in 1980, and the efforts of East Germany and China to build an international sporting profile through drug cheating — show that the totalitarian temptation will always be a factor in international sport.
But these examples show why it is so important for free countries such as Australia to uphold a different set of ideals.
One of the main reasons why the Olympic reality falls far short of the ideal is that it has fallen victim to gross commercialisation, both nationally and internationally.
To host the Olympic Games, a nation must spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the construction of new stadiums, swimming pools, other facilities and accommodation for thousands of athletes, which are used for just a fortnight. There are, of course, spin-offs in the form of excellent facilities which can be used for many years, and apartment-style housing which can be sold off. But the income from these invariably falls far short of the expenditure.
Governments only spend this sort of money where there is a prospect of financial return, in the form of increased tourism, national promotion and infrastructure.
For the national Olympic committees and sports institutes, which are often government-funded, success is judged by numbers of medals (particularly gold) won, and if the numbers fall short of expectations, as Australia’s have at the London Games, questions will be asked, and future funding may be affected.
To bankroll the international Olympic movement, TV rights to the Games are sold to the highest bidder in every country. This ensures not only wall-to-wall TV coverage across the world, but also the consequent commercialisation of the Games, including commercial sponsorship of athletes and even of particular events.
For the athletes themselves, many of whom are professional sportsmen, success or failure will determine not only their current earnings, but commercial sponsorship, and even future careers.
The effect of all this is that the reality of the Olympics falls far short of the ideal.
But what is most distressing about the Olympics is not the commercialisation, but the jingoistic media coverage which is focussed on national success to the exclusion of all else.
One aspect of this is that Australia’s TV coverage is almost exclusively on Australian athletes, and the truly remarkable performances of others are minimised and occasionally completely ignored.
For example, the astonishing performance of America’s Michael Phelps in the swimming pool has been treated as an afterthought, or worse, as a point of contrast with the disappointment in Australian swimmers. And who has heard of Sir Chris Hoy (another multiple gold medal winner), or noticed the extraordinary performances of South Korean athletes?
Another aspect is that the media place utterly unrealistic expectations on Australian athletes, to the point where a failure to win a gold medal — in other words, to be the best in the world — is repeatedly described as failure. What effect this negativity has on the unfortunate athletes themselves was seen when Australian silver and bronze medal winners were seen to be crying in anguish. What example does this give to young Australians back home?
When real or imagined failures occur, far too often the media indulge in the “tall poppy” syndrome, not empathy with the athlete and respect for what has been achieved.
Failure to win Olympic gold is attributed to the athletes’ poor preparation, or poor work ethic, or poor training, rather than the obvious point that athletes from other countries are more talented, have better facilities, have more opportunities to excel in competition, and often are better resourced.
There is a real need for the media to reconnect with reality, to accept that Australia is not the centre of the sporting world, and to attempt to rediscover the values on which the Olympics were founded.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.