August 07, 2012
Student well-being, not sporting results, should drive policy.
HE'D been the youngest ever champion at 17 and retained his title against the world's best at 18. Then, in 1987, Boris Becker lost early in the Wimbledon tennis championships. Disappointed? Surely he was, but the freshly defeated 19-year-old offered an astonishingly mature perspective: ''No one died out there. I just lost a tennis match.'' In the Australia-wide inquisition over having won only one gold medal halfway into the London Olympic Games, we could all heed his point about sport.
Yes, expectations were high and some of the medal opportunities missed have been cruel. Some of our best hopes for gold have faced questions that imply they must be disappointed with anything less. Never mind that silver still represents second-best in the world, competing against athletes drawn from more than 200 nations and a population of 7 billion. Of course, some athletes have shown disappointment in the moment of defeat. They were aiming for the ultimate prize and no one should criticise them for that.
However, in the cool light of day, shattered and sleep-deprived Games watchers should reflect on silver medallist Mitchell Watts' objection to the first question he got: ''Is it a disappointing result?'' He told the media to ''wake up''; he was happy. ''If people can't realise that a silver medal is a big achievement, there's something wrong with them.''
Swim relay member Cate Campbell does have an elusive gold medal around her neck, but describes the criticism of her teammates as ''hurtful''. And she added: ''It's not that we haven't been performing, it's just that the world has stepped up.'' It's an observation to celebrate, not lament, because global development is creating tougher, more even contests.
Given the inordinate importance we attach to sport, Australian Olympic officials are loath to accept a slide down the rankings to well below the top-five goal they set for the 410-strong team. They have revised their target in London from 46 medals (the tally in Beijing in 2008) to something above 30, but are already agitating for greater government support. No one has died, but our sporting pride is deeply wounded. Governments are under pressure on the funding and policy fronts.
On the eve of the Games, Sports Minister Kate Lundy was already defending the Gillard government, which she said had ''got it right''. Of $1.2 billion in funding over four years, $120 million goes to high-performance sport. Yet the team's chef de mission, Nick Green, warned Australia's main rivals had massively outspent us. In a time of tight budgets, it all comes down to priorities and Australia surely has greater ones than the results at a sporting event every four years.
The Age agrees, however, with calls to promote sport in schools, which is also a goal of the newly developed national curriculum. Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates wants ''a greater emphasis upon sport in the schools - and we need that because we've got to make sure we've got a talent pool''. That would be one effect of getting more people involved in sport, but it is not the most important reason for participation. Age reports this week highlight the benefits for both young and old of being physically active, which brings immense gains in health and well-being. As we report today, disadvantaged youngsters suffer most from sedentary, TV-watching lifestyles. Even at school level, the health benefits and associated academic gains, which research confirms, are the best reasons for promoting school sport.
Australia's slide down global rankings of student performance causes little of the angst associated with a less-than-golden Games. Where is the push to improve publicly funded schools, students and their teachers? The neglect of sport in many schools is a mark of their broader lack of resources. As a matter of public policy, investment in school sport is best justified by the health and education benefits for all students. That is the national talent pool that truly matters.