Post 59:08 Why the Olympics matter to Australia

With the Olympics over, Australia is experiencing a paroxysm of disappointment that we did not win as many medals as last time, a situation somehow considered a failure in light of two things:

  1. The “fact” that Australia is “good at sport”
  2. The amount of money we spend on sport

Many are arguing that if we could increase the sums involved at (2) we could prove (1).

Others are calling for restraint, saying we spend more than on sport.

I fall into the second camp. It costs about $100 million a year to rn elite sport in Australia. I’d like to see $100 mllion spent on achieving elite performance in every field of endeavor. For example, I am a journo: where’s my National Institute of Journalism. Where’s the chance for talented young writers to spend years in subsidised accomodation, being tutored by experts and assisted to realise their potential. If the nation gets so much pride from watching our athletes scoop up some disks coated in metal sourced from our nation’s mines, how good would it be to watch us pick up a Pulitzer or two?

The answer to the last question is: not proud at all. Australia generally cares not for intellectual achievement.

And that, I think, explains our obsession with the the Olympics as a leading indicator of national success.

Here’s why.

I lived in London in 1999, the year Australian teams came to England and won both the Rugby and Cricket World Cups. I celebrated both drunkenly and boorishly.

The Brits’ response, or at least those I worked with, was that Australia might be rather good at winning things, but the UK had produced Shakespeare. And Wordsworth. And Byron. Oh and there was the small matter of Empire, the modern banking system, the whole fragging age of enlightenment, the most globally-played sports …. and so on.

You get the drift. Britain has given the world and awful lot and, in the eyes of the world, stands for all those things and more.

Australia, I believe, stands for heat, funny and/or dangerous animals, beaches and vastness. None of which are products of our civilisation.

In fact the only products of our civilisation I can think of that people I have met around the world can readily cite are:

  • Fosters Lager
  • Paul Hogan
  • Russel Crowe
  • Sporting prowess

Let’s forget the first three. Especially Fosters. Because it seems to me that the main product of Australian civilisation most people can point to is our uncanny knack of producing successful athletes. We define ourselves by being able to do so.

Hence the national panic when our Olympians don’t prove we Still Have It.

Seems to me this is as good a reason as any to actually get serious about National Institutes of Everything Other Than Sport.


2 thoughts on “Post 59:08 Why the Olympics matter to Australia

  1. When I lived in Australia I was, like you, always amazed by the resources the government poured into sport, particularly given the low financial return on the ‘investment’. (in fact I wonder if there is any financial return on the sporting expenditure).

    Incidentally, today’s Christchurch Press estimates that each Olympic medal cost this nation almost NZ$10 million. that’s less than half the A$17 million The Australian newspaper’s estimate of Australian medals. (I’ve seen other estimates as high as A$100 million per gold medal in Australian media).

    Could this money be better spent elsewhere?

    Meanwhile Great Britain is having a very different debate about the money it spent on Olympic glory (

  2. Very interesting post. Having only arrived on these (shark infested but beautiful) shores three months ago I am still annoying people with my occasional bouts of Britishness.

    Before the Olympics, we British always considered the Aussies to be really good winners. Sure, there was some jibing when year after year you won the Ashes, the rugby, the Olympic golds… but it was good fun. It wasn’t like losing to the Americans, French or even the Germans. We like you guys.

    What I have learnt in the last two weeks is that Aussies are good winners, but bad losers.

    The British on the other hand are good losers but terrible winners. Embarrassingly so. I have been posting on my own blog over the last couple of days, wondering why we can never just enjoy success.

    I can’t help thinking as long as Australia gets back onto its winning track quickly, perhaps noone will need know how bad the nation is at losing 😉

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