All That Glisters Is Not Gold

We’ve seen some disgraceful behaviour in the local media regarding “underperformance” at the Olympic Games. Australia fancies itself in a couple of sports – swimming is definitely one of them. It would be, sadly, an overstatement to say that we are good winners and bad losers – we’re smug winners, as a media scrum (the athletes are generally quite humble), and we’re absolutely vile losers. If someone from another nation (which isn’t Britain or the US) happens to beat us, then out come the accusations of doping, or sly comments. A young man who has achieved Olympic Silver and has missed out by 1/100th of a second is confronted, just out of the pool, by an ex-swimmer who should know better asking if he’s feeling shattered. What does it achieve? Do we need it? Do we care?

Why should he feel shattered? Did he stop for a drink half-way? Did he throw the comp (as some athletes who have already been expelled did)? No? Then let it go.

I was watching the kayaking (I was trapped in an airport lounge) and the guy who came third was absolutely stoked – a Bronze for Czechoslovakia! Why? Because he did his best and it happened to get him a medal. The lone male Australian athletics competitor came 19th but it was the best result for mens athletics for Oz in decades, I believe, so that was a good thing and he got some brief praise on the television. Sadly, and I’m sorry, athletics people, I think that’s because nobody expected him to do that much and, being very honest, very few people give two hoots about Australia’s performance in this area. (I will be surprised if he’s ever mentioned again – which is terrible after his achievement.)

Here’s what everyone sitting on a couch, remote in hand, beer in the other, criticising these athletes for getting Silver (woo), Bronze (gasp!) or (hushed silence) no medal (no hoper!) is secretly reciting to themselves.

“We’re sun-bronzed Aussies! We’re cut out of the same rock and leather as the outback heroes who became ANZACs and went off to war, larger than life and twice as tall! We own the pool! We rule the velodrome! We occasionally shoot things with guns and bows! We’ll remember who you are for a few minutes in another sport if you win a medal – we’ll make you a natural treasure if you’re cute, you win through an amazing series of people falling over or if you get us unexpected medals in a Winter Olympics. We might even remember your name.

For a while.

Of course, run into a pommel horse and break your jaw and we’ll play that on the TV for 20 years because nothing appeals to us more than the humiliating failure of people that we would praise if they won.”

(Note that this is not everyone who watches the Olympics but it’s certainly everyone who walked around for the last day or so giving our swimmers a hard time or accusing the Chinese swimmers of doping. Seriously, that’s your first reaction?)

What a curse of expectation lies over all of this – the sport you pick, the way you do it, people sitting in armchairs judging professional athletes as to how much over their PB they should have achieved. You know what I’m drawing to here. This is exactly what happens to people who come to Uni as well. If you’re first-in-family and not well supported, then you’ll be listening to people telling you that you’re wasting your time. If you’re getting distinctions, why not HDs? (Hey, if you’re offering constructive assistance and support, I have much less problem. If you’re saying ‘Wow, 98, what happened to the other 2’ and even vaguely mean it? Shame on you.) Everyone else did better than you? Why not drag up a racial or cultural stereotype, or accuse the staff of favouritism, or come up with any excuse other than “I didn’t do anything”. I still have a lot of sympathies for these students because I think that a lot of this rubbish comes in from around you. If you’re not excelling, then why bother?

This kind of culture is pervasive – you win, or you’re nothing. If someone else wins, they cheated, or (somehow) it wasn’t fair. It’s impossible to construct a sound learning framework out of rubbish like this. What’s worse is that if you start to think that everyone else is winning by cheating or by being ‘lucky’, then suddenly little switches go off in your head as your rationalisation engine starts shutting down the ethical cut-outs.

I generally try not to watch sports or commentary around Olympics time because, for all of the amazing athletic effort, there’s always far too much hype, nonsense and unpleasantness for me to able to appreciate it. It’s no wonder a lot of my students can barely think sometimes as they stress themselves into careers that they don’t want, degrees they don’t need, or towards goals that they aren’t yet ready to achieve, when we have such a ferocious media scrum hanging around the necks of our best sportspeople. You tell people that’s what winning looks like and, be careful, they might believe you.

One Comment on “All That Glisters Is Not Gold”

  1. Not much different from England then 😉


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