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Olympics: Kiwi heroes fail to understand

Triathlete Hamish Carter eventually came back stronger from this major disappointment in Sydney.
Photo / Getty Images
Triathlete Hamish Carter eventually came back stronger from this major disappointment in Sydney. Photo / Getty Images

The majority of New Zealand's modern Olympic champions failed at their first attempt - a historical trend which bodes well for those who experienced heartache in Beijing and are heading to London.

Gold medal contenders like rowing men's pair Eric Murray and Hamish Bond, triathlete Andrea Hewitt, BMX rider Sarah Walker and Laser sailor Andrew Murdoch are just four examples of athletes who medalled at the premier event in the last year but who failed to make a podium in Beijing.

Olympic gold medallists since 1984 such as Val Adams, Tom Ashley, Hamish Carter, Ian Ferguson, Sarah Ulmer and Rob Waddell each failed to win a medal at their first or - in Ferguson and Ulmer's case - second attempt. Yet they persevered and triumphed.

The pressure of the London Olympics is fast descending on New Zealand athletes. Form, pedigree and investment suggest New Zealand should match or trump all previous Olympic achievements except the eight-gold haul of Los Angeles when Kiwi athletes benefited from the Soviet-led boycott.

New Zealand athletes' lead-up results in the Games cycle, particularly in five of the six taxpayer-targeted Olympic sports (rowing, triathlon, sailing, bike and track and field) mean more medals than usual are expected. Swimming is the only outlier with no athletes in top three contention on current rankings.

Translating fine pre-Olympic performances into medals can be misleading. The psychology of dealing with the exponential hype and an experience new Olympians have never faced before is daunting.

Carter remains the definitive example amongst New Zealand's recent Olympic icons. After starting a short-priced favourite to win the triathlon in Sydney, he slumped to 26th. He turned it around though to triumph in Athens.

"The Olympic environment can be a huge distraction," Carter says. "There's a lot of added pressure with a once-every-four-year spectacle. The desire to be successful can crush you. The country is watching.

"Athletes try to control or block that out but it changes the game, making it mentally hard to manage. That was my mistake in Sydney; getting caught up in it all.

"When you go to your initial Games, there can be huge disappointment. Unless you accept an epic fail, you can be unwilling to take on lessons.

"You dodge the reality and some athletes bomb out again as a result. Failure can be a key to turning things around.

"Whether an athlete admits it or not, the hype is prevalent. You're going through security to get to training, you get given a bag of gear you've never worn, you're eating in a food hall filled with athletes.

"The village is filled with Kiwiana - which is fantastic - but it is an environment you have not experienced. You're managing a lot of extra emotion."

Those initial Olympic circumstances are something rower Hamish Bond has mulled over after his experience in Beijing with the men's coxless four.

That crew came into the Games as defending world champions and threatened to become just the second New Zealand crew to win in the discipline - the first was in 1984. They failed to make the final.

"The biggest thing between then and now is that Eric [Murray, Bond's partner who was also in the four] and I have better understanding of what makes us go fast. In 2007 we chanced upon a rhythm which snowballed into a terrific result.

"Suddenly in 2008 we weren't sure again. We were searching for that same effect but we lost it and didn't know how to get it back.

"These days, with four more years' experience, it is far more of a feel thing. We're more comfortable and assured. You could assess all the measurements from our GPS data but I could tell you how fast we go based on rhythm. The numbers would merely back that up.

"As a pair [since 2009], we have always raced well [they are unbeaten in international competition]. As a general rule the difference between a good and bad race is not much.

"We've done nothing drastically wrong in the past, why should it be that way now? We are on auto-pilot to a degree.

Bond got value out of a recent presentation by High Performance Sport New Zealand planner Dave Slyfield, who analysed the path to success of every New Zealand gold medallist back to 1984.

"We've learnt a lot from Rob Waddell as a result," Bond says. "He was a meticulous planner. His attention to detail for unexpected scenarios in Sydney has been taken on board. It was the same with Hamish Carter in Athens. He was a lot more relaxed the second time around. "He was too wound up in Sydney. He didn't look forward to racing because he was over-hyped and anxious. You can't pretend the hype's not there but it makes it important to keep to ourselves and place trust in the Rowing New Zealand group."

Psychologist Gary Hermansson will be with the New Zealand team in London and has worked with Kiwi Olympians - including a number of champions - for years. He is set to publish a paper later this year with colleague Ken Hodge in the Journal of Sports Psychology in Action. It is entitled Uncontrollable Outcomes: Managing Expectations at the Olympics.

Hermansson says experience is the antidote to Olympic hoopla: "Athletes get blown away and need a sense of perspective. Those who go in as contenders often get swept up in outcome pressure; the expectations of result from a nation."

Rowers Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell went into their second Olympics out of form. The hype that surrounded their win in Athens led to an expectation they'd be double gold medallists.

Six weeks from Beijing, they couldn't even make an A final [at a World Cup regatta]. That might have been embarrassing but it shifted attention from the pressure of gold medal expectation.

They focused on rowing the boat as well as they could and finishing with their heads held high. The rest is history."

- Herald on Sunday

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