Good Sports, Bad Sports

Australian rowers Kim Crow and Brooke Pratley – winning silver is not losing.

Australia won two gold medals last night, which is lovely, especially for champion cyclist Anna Mears and champion hurdler Sally Pearson, who actually won the medals in question, and are both understandably elated.

But I’ve been far more interested in how Australians have reacted to NOT winning the expected number of gold medals over the last week and a half. This is the first time I’ve watched an Olympics with an animated, interested primary age child (in some cases, thanks to hanging out with friends, several children) who is capable of understanding a good deal of what’s going on, and it has made a huge impact on how angry I have got about the coverage.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the Australian media, and Channel Nine in particular, have been providing a very bad example to our kids. It feels like every day I’m getting angry, about sexist reporting, about the lack of coverage of the achievements of other countries (my daughter has repeatedly asked why she hasn’t yet seen a medal ceremony where someone else’s national anthem is played), and particularly in the way that reporters have repeatedly belittled the huge number of silver and bronze medals that Australians have received.

You know, silver and bronze medals which mean they are absolute elite sportspeople at the top of their professions? Since when is being second fastest or second highest scoring something to be equated with coming LAST? Even those who come last are coming last among the top 8 or 12 in their field. It’s still pretty bloody good!

I know that it’s hard when your expectations are crazy big and you fall short of what you thought you were going to get. But even those expectations were loaded so heavily with gender issues and parochialism. Did, for example, the Australians really think that Great Britain were not pouring all their resources into a great showing at these games?

But the national bafflement, especially as reflected in the news and sports reporting of this event (not just Channel Nine, though I’ve been exposed to more of their silliness than anyone else’s) is not just irritating, but damaging. I personally don’t think that our lack of gold medals should require a national enquiry or worst of all, that it should become the next big election issue. We weathered the global financial crisis better than a whole bunch of other western countries and I don’t think throwing money at the issue is remotely appropriate.

Maybe Australia should just learn to be classy in defeat.

Once kids start playing sport at school, especially the very young children (my daughter plays under 7’s soccer) we work so hard to make sure they are taking in the important messages of sport – about trying your best, and learning to work with a team, and building up skills. But most of all, we try to teach them good sportsmanship. How to win with grace, and deal with a loss through good humour and a sense of perspective. Being kind and generous to your opponents, and behaving well. Taking positives out of games, regardless of the score, because it’s all about improving.

Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Our kids have to deal with sledging, or over-competitive coaches, or rough behaviour on the pitch. Sometimes it’s coming from other teams, sometimes even from within. We as parents have to learn how to encourage and celebrate our children without being THOSE parents who put too much pressure on them, or embarrass them through getting overly angry-frustrated over a game.

So seeing extended interviews in which a male rowing team are given license to complain bitterly and sadly (at extraordinary length) about coming second in a world competition, or hearing reporters ask athletes how disappointed they are, or how devastated they are, when they have won FREAKING silver or bronze medals, has been deeply disappointing. Luckily I’m here to point out this ridiculousness to my daughter, but Channel Nine, when you punch the air with excitement at the gold medal achievements of our athletes, and crow about how inspiring this is to the younger generation, it’s kind of important to remember that those kids were also watching you before, through the whingeing and the self-pity and the belittling of other achievements.

This morning I explained to Raeli about Cyprus, who came second in the race where the Aussie bloke won a gold medal for sailing, and how it’s their country’s first ever Olympic medal, and how it means more to them than anything. They don’t think silver is second best, or that it’s a minor achievement. I’d love to see the Olympics celebrate more stories like that – if it’s about celebrating excellence and sportsmanship then how about showing us some of the other countries and their achievements?

I’ve been pleased to see many athletes explaining that gold medals aren’t necessarily the point of the meet – about the importance of trying to beat your own personal best, or to make the medal tally at all, let alone to make it to a final which is in itself an extraordinary achievement. Sometimes emotion does take over, when you fall short of your own expectations. Disappointment is inevitable. But plenty of our bronze and silver medallists are rightfully delighted at their achievements! It’s hard to miss that tor every enormous Aussie grin at receiving bronze or silver, acknowledging that another athlete or team was better on the day, or showing good sportsmanship, there have been reporters trying to turn the story into another one of failure, of loss, and of misery, because the shiny trinket is the “wrong” colour.

Winning silver is winning silver. It is not the same as “losing.”

Gold is exciting and wonderful, sure. But it has been depressing to see that the Australian media is so lacking in imagination that it can’t celebrate our actual achievements rather than perceived failures, and that it can’t properly celebrate the greater achievements of other countries and cultures.

My favourite thing about Sally Pearson’s win was not just her complete joy at her achievement, but the joy shown by her closest rivals in her success as well as her own. And yes, the Channel Nine reporters did point this out, delighted at such an example of good sportsmanship. But it would be nice if they had been quite as keen to point out how good sports behave back when we weren’t winning gold.

Be classy, Australia. The kids are watching. Say it with me: it’s an honour just to be nominated.

Now try to mean it.

Kellie Wells of the USA hugs gold-medal winner Sally Pearson after the the women’s 100m Hurdles final

8 replies on “Good Sports, Bad Sports”

  1. Grant says:

    The coverage of the Olympics has been awful this year. I’ve been avoiding it for the most part.

  2. Melanie says:

    Surely watching that poor female swimmer in tears at only getting silver should have made them change tack (tact). Many of the athletes are teenagers. We expect maturity and media savviness from kids who have barely looked up from their chosen sport for years. But usually,if you watch them on the day -in their zone – they’re happy to compete no matter what the outcome.

    Kids – watch them, don’t listen to the journalists – and just watch how the media analyses the appalling job the media did at these Olympics….
    They’re the ones who lost….

  3. Liz says:

    Totally agree, Tansy. The other thing I hate about C9’s coverage is the Tom Waterhouse gambling ads – when children are watching. Appalling.

    I’m a Pommie migrant, so I’ve been thrilled with Britain’s unusually good performance. Growing up GB used to struggle to make five golds in any Olympics, underfunded as sport was back then. This Olympics, my favourite moments were the athletics golds, the showjumping gold and, in particular, the gymastics silver and bronzes. The gymnasts, especially the men, were amazing at these Games and it was great to see them performing so well against the world’s best.

    I think one of the worst moments so far was Eddie last night calling the men’s triathlon. Throughout he repeatedly said the British guy expected to win was a choker and that the Aussie guy could challenge for the gold. I don’t know who the person was calling with him, but he was clearly embarrassed by such ignorant comments, and kept trying to explain the likely outcome and why. And was right.

  4. Thoraiya says:

    I have had an awesome time watching the archery finals, women’s, men’s and teams, that a friend recorded for me off Fox Sports.

    After the 4 finals, I have listened to the Korean National Anthem 3 times, the Italian National Anthem once.

    One Australian man made it through to…what…the top 16 or so?…before he was knocked out?

    But who cares? The Australian archers were in the opening ceremony, weren’t they? They competed for their country, and that’s frankly all that most archers care about because Korea is Teh Awesome at archery, every big corporation over there has its own archery team and thousands of women there earn an excellent salary doing nothing but shoot arrows.

    And because of that I got super, super excited about the two Mexican girls who got Mexico’s first ever archery Olympic medals. It was all just really good fun, no shaming and no blaming.

    I wish it was purchaseable on DVD so I could just point everyone to it for a relaxing evening of sports on television.

    (Though the tradition of the man who knows nothing talking over the woman who was the archery expert was still maintained by the Fox commentators. I understand that the guy was meant to be the everyman; the Joe Blow who knows nothing about archery and gets to ask the questions that the audience might be asking. But really, he talked a lot of crap over the top of the woman who knew what to point out to a lay audience).

    The Small One could not be convinced that arrows were more exciting than hurdles, however, and we did send a Hero Message to Lauren Boden (“I love running and jumping and YOU love running and jumping!”)


  5. Ben Payne says:

    I agree. It’s awful, some of the unsporting and unsupportive comments about second place. A bit of perspective would go a long way…

  6. Kate C says:

    Well said Tansy. Couldn’t agree more. This is why I’ve hardly watched any of the Olympics this time round, it’s just embarrassing.

  7. Caroline says:

    The UK coverage has been very team GB focused, but still positive about athletes of all nationalities and showing plenty of events where we have no hope of medalling. I’ve never paid much attention to the olympics before, so not sure how this compares to when we haven’t been hosting or doing well.

    I’ve enjoyed the footage of Usain Bolt, not so much because of his amazing running, but because he’s clearly taking such joy in the events and having fun with the spectators.

    I hate the way the medal table standings are completely dependant on the gold medal scores – I think a weighted score including all medals would be much fairer.

    It must be particularly strange for silver medalists in the duel type games (for want of a better word – judo, tennis, hockey, etc) – it’s an amazing achievement, but the last thing they do is lose a match.

    There’s a nice positive interview with an australian silver medalist here:–oly.html

    and some pictures of unhappy silver medalists here:


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