Aussie's Rio shocker: Counting the cost

Australia's Patty Mills reacts to fans after a quarterfinal round basketball game against Lithuania at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Photo / AP.
Australia's Patty Mills reacts to fans after a quarterfinal round basketball game against Lithuania at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Photo / AP.

The disappointment is palpable.

With just four days of the Rio Olympics left, Australia has at this point failed to come close to the glory breathlessly anticipated before the Games.

With $340 million ploughed into this four-year cycle, fans are questioning whether the underwhelming results represent value for money.

Aussie athletes have so far scooped 27 medals, at a cost of $12.5 million per medal at this stage.

Seven golds puts the nation 10th in the rankings, a far cry from the top-five hopes of the Australian Olympic Committee, or the 37 medals - 13 gold - it forecast in December.

So what's gone wrong? And could taxpayers' money have been better spent?

AUSTRALIA'S HORROR SHOW

There have been rivers of tears and dashed dreams from Australia's best in Rio as one after another, their greatest medal hopes have failed to reach the heights predicted for them.

Talented sisters Cate and Bronte Campbell didn't medal in their favourite freestyle events, and fellow swimmers Emily Seebohm, Mitch Larkin and Cameron McEvoy also fell short.

Defending Olympic champion Anna Meares sobbed and asked fans to forgive her as she bowed out in 10th in the cycling sprint.

Hurdler Lauren Wells crumpled to the ground after coming seventh in the 400-metre semi-final, while discus-thrower Dani Samuels teared up after just missing out on a medal in fourth place.

The highly favoured Opals were in shock after losing to Serbia in the basketball quarter-finals, the Matildas lost out to Brazil in a quarter-final penalty shootout and water polo side the Stingers went out in the quarters to Hungary.

Two more teams to fall victim to the curse of the quarters were the men's hockey side, which lost 4-0 to the Netherlands, and the men's rugby sevens team to South Africa.

Michelle Jenneke exited the 100m hurdle heats in an underwhelming sixth while injury-hit Melissa Hoskins wept after Great Britain clinched the world record title in the team pursuit.

High jump champion Brandon Starc retired in 15th place, Matthew Glaetzer failed to qualify in the men's keirin second round and rower Rhys Grant couldn't make the men's single sculls semi-final.

There have been successes too, with golds from swimmers Mack Horton and Kyle Chalmers, Catherine Skinner in women's trap shooting, rower Kim Brennan and sailer Tom Burton.

But the overall effect is one of a disappointment for Australia's brightest stars in Rio.

STEADY DECLINE

The Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics marked a record high for Australia, which came fourth with 58 medals, 16 of them gold.

But the nation's Olympic performance has been in steady decline ever since. At Athens 2004, the country won 49 medals, dropping to 46 at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, with 14 golds.

By London 2012, Australia won just 35 medals, seven of them gold.

Four years on, the team is on track for its worst medal haul since Seoul in 1988 as a series of athletes choke or narrowly miss out on the top-three.

The Australian Sports Commission's much-vaunted Winning Edge funding strategy, introduced after 2012, will now be under the spotlight.

The system was based on prioritising investment in sports seen as having the greatest chance of success.

In May, the Australian Sports Institute claimed the nation was on course for a vastly improved performance at these Games, with 21 of 39 programs rated "on track or better", compared with 15 the previous year. Director Matt Favier insisted our teams were in a strong position to reverse the decline.

At this stage, the opposite appears to be true.

'THE COMPETITION IS GETTING MORE INTENSE'

Hans Westerbeek, Dean of Victoria University's College of Sport and Exercise Science, says the problem here is one of inflated expectations.

Australia's excellent result at the Sydney Games was really an anomaly, he believes, with host countries typically performing above their level.

"We're still punching above our weight," he told news.com.au. "We sit among countries like Jamaica.

"Unfortunately, the reality is we were so successful in Sydney, that continues to be the benchmark against which we measure ourselves."

Barring the Netherlands in ninth place, all of the countries in the top 10 have a far larger population than Australia.

"To make a success of 24 million [people] in Australia is a lot harder than China with 1.3 billion to tap into. Or the US, which clearly outperforms the others, have 320 million to target."

Professor Westerbeek says it is up to our leaders to decide how important sporting achievement on the world stage is to the nation's wellbeing.

"We haven't significantly increased funding for high-performance sport, whereas a number of countries have significantly increased funding," he said.

"It's not expected that we can continue to deliver at the rate of past Olympics when others are encroaching on the high-performance space and bringing their athletes up.

"That comes back to resources. What level of coaches we employ, the technology you can afford, how much money you pour into research and development.

"The competition for medals is getting more intense."

Compared with other nations, the money Australia has thrown at the Games starts to look less crazy. Great Britain, for example, has spent $600 million on this Olympic cycle, in contrast to Australia's $340 million. That's $10.9 million per medal at the time of writing.

High Performance Sport NZ spent $163 million on this cycle - $11.6 million per medal.

The US spent $1.042 billion on the 2012 Games cycle. If they've spent the same (and it's likely to be more) on Rio, their current figure would be $11 million per medal.

'FINE BALANCE BETWEEN WINNING AND LOSING'

Australia needs to ask serious questions about what it wants from the Olympics.

Are they aiming for as many medals as possible, no matter the cost?

Should they give smaller sports a chance, or keep focusing on their "strong" ones?

Or do they want to invest somewhere else entirely, and slip further down the medal table?

While the Games aren't over yet, ASC and AIS will be holding a post-mortem next week after Monday's closing ceremony. Prof Westerbeek expects they will be asking how they can get more from their partnerships, improving innovation and building our understanding of the human body and the science of biomechanics in order to compete with the global elite.

But the Games aren't over yet, as chef de mission Kitty Chiller observed in a News Corp interview this week.

"You look at Jarrod Poort (open water swimming) and Murray Stewart (K1 1000m), they went out and gave it a good go. Murray finished fourth, Jarrod back, but everyone is doing their very best and that's all we've ever been able to ask and you can't take that away from them," she said.

"The results probably haven't gone our way in some of the events, but we've still got a lot of great medal hopes to come."

Opposition sport spokesman Stephen Conroy said in a statement that the government needed to look at how funding could be better used.

"We have seen some terrific results by Australian athletes in Rio but there have also been some disappointments," he said.

"Once the Olympics and Paralympics have concluded, Australia should take a close look at our funding arrangements, as well as the preparation and support available to our athletes, so that they're best placed to achieve the highest levels of success in the future."

Of course, there are no guarantees in sport. Prof Westerbeek points out that when you have Aussie sprinter Ella Nelson missing out on the final by 100th of a second, there's never been a thinner line between success and failure.

"It's such a fine balance between winning and losing."

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 07 Dec 2016 01:55:41 Processing Time: 1000ms