They've been re-branded and culture-shifted for Rio.
After the debacle of London 2012, the Aussie Olympic team has (a bit like Rio) plenty of unfinished business in its in-tray. After being re-booted and re-branded, culture-shifted and corporately shaped, will our Olympians bounce back and be brilliant at Rio 2016?
As far as wake-up calls go, it was Black Sabbath jamming with Metallica at the end of your mattress. It was Mick Fanning’s shark set swimming in your waterbed. It was a passionate kiss from your toothless grandmother-in-law as you dozed on the couch after Christmas lunch. It was the London 2012 Olympic Games, and its tumultuous events and earnest aftermath remain jarring, shift-shaping moments for the executives, initiators and idealists at the helm of Australian sport. Rather than returning from the Mother Country cloaked in glory, the Aussie 2012 team came home covered in the tawdry coats of controversy and discontentment.
The record books list Australia having won 35 medals: seven gold, 16 silver and 12 bronze; good for tenth place among the 204 nations participating in London. But the statisticians quickly told of a starker truth – it was Australia’s worst Olympic result since Barcelona 1992.
The television viewing experience back home fell far short of the Gold! Gold! Gold! experience promised in the build up. Of the seven gold medals won, three were for victories by our sailors, the mostly unseen saviours of the London 2012 campaign, in the waters off Weymouth, three hours’ drive from the Olympic epicentre. As Day Nine dawned, Australia had won just a single gold medal, the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay on the first night of competition, and was the butt of almost all Olympic-themed jokes of the gloating British tabloids, sent delirious by their team’s endless triumphs. (For example, much was made of Yorkshire thrashing Australia on the medal table. Even Geoff Boycott was probably happy for once.) Save for a three-hour window when Anna Meares and Sally Pearson each raced to victory on Day 11, the only other golden celebration for Australia in London would come in kayaks, in the men’s K4 1000m.
And, tellingly, what were many praiseworthy performances were soon forgotten in the reviews, show trials and revelations that were to come when the athletes returned home. Our swimmers, for so long Australia’s quadrennial pin-ups, were pilloried. An independent review released in 2013 blasted the management and lack of leadership in the team, detailing “culturally toxic incidents” of prescribed drug misuse, bullying and lack of focus. London 2012 was described by exasperated athletes as “the lonely Olympics”; the doomed rise of the self-centred selfie generation was foreshadowed.
“To come back [home] to the sentiment that some sections of the public believed Olympic athletes were perhaps entitled, were perhaps ungrateful, were perhaps kind of little shits ...” Kim Crow’s voice trails off at the sting of this memory. Crow was brilliant in London, winning bronze in the single scull and silver with Brooke Pratley in the double scull. Cloistered in rowing’s own satellite athletes’ village near its Eton Dorney venue, consumed by the physical and mental load of competing in two events at the regatta, Crow wasn’t privy to the upsetting experiences of other athletes. Upon her return to Australia, she quickly comprehended what it all meant. The 410-strong team had been let down by the few. The emerging negative narrative was strangling the multi-generational goodwill our Olympic team had earned.
“It was quite disappointing for someone who values our Olympic history and our Olympians who have gone before us so much,” says Crow, 30, the 2013 and 2015 single scull world champion and a dual Olympian. “It is our role to uphold their traditions and do a good job of it. I guess there was disappointment at how we were perceived – and a realisation that we need to do a lot better next time”.
“Next time” means Rio 2016, to be held for 16 days from August 5, with a program of 28 sports and 306 events. When Brazil won the right to host the 2016 Games back in 2009, Rio promised a competition-themed Carnival: sunshine, samba and sporting spectacle. Now, the Australian team prepares with some trepidation. The script demands this is, in part, a comeback Games, as much in regard to off-field conduct as on-field results.
The truth is London 2012 was the medals recession we had to have. After a glorious stretch of success from Sydney 2000 through to Beijing 2008 – three record-setting hauls of 45-plus medals and 14-plus gold medals per Games; the punch-above-our-weight, puffed-out pride of placing fourth, fourth and sixth respectively on the medal table – London was the air seeping out of our prized podium-themed balloon. The clock had struck midnight on our Cinderella run of golden Games.
The observation, made in this magazine in the aftermath, that 35 medals wasn’t so bad (the Couldashoodawooda Games, we dubbed London), and reflected the reality of increased international talent in our favoured sports and some sub-optimum personal performances, just didn’t wash. For nuance is seldom part of nationalistic Olympic review. Emotion KOs analysis every time. It also drives a demand for action. What has happened since London 2012 is a rigorous re-defining of Australia’s Games-related programs, policies and priorities. The first major change was Winning Edge, a policy platform introduced in November 2012 which implemented an all-reaching overhaul of Australia’s elite sport strategies and governance. (See Star Search in our August 2015 edition.)
Winning Edge re-defined the role and responsibilities of the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) and its peak resource, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), in the most drastic shake-up of our elite sport industry since the aftermath of the Montreal 1976 Games. Simon Hollingsworth, chief executive officer of the ASC, told Inside Sport the events of London 2012 “gave us the impetus for change. If not for London, the feeling may have been to just keep on doing what we were doing, as opposed to initiating a complete overhaul of the system.”
The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) was next to order in a quiet revolution. It made several key personnel changes. Out went London 2012 chef de mission Nick Green, the Oarsome Foursome legend, replaced by Kitty Chiller, a Sydney 2000 modern pentathlete and deputy chef in London, who will lead the team as chef de mission in Rio. The AOC appointed its first female secretary general, Fiona de Jong, formerly its long-standing director of sport. Ten team leaders were assigned early to manage both team culture and medal expectations, each given responsibilities for specific sports and disciplines.
Crow has been one of the prime athlete movers as the AOC has directed its efforts to building a positive, united team brand and culture for Rio – in part by doing a better job seeking the input of its competing athletes and responding to their concerns. Crow, a lawyer by profession, took on the role of chairperson of the AOC Athletes’ Commission after London 2012. (“I was the one who forgot to put my hand down,” she jokes when asked why she added the position to her already full schedule). This also gives Crow a seat on the 12-person AOC board, alongside not only president John Coates, but also Chiller and de Jong, a critical three-woman triumvirate of cultural influence for Rio. “Since our [athletes’] commission came on after the London Games, we have had a lot of extensive discussions about what is important to the group, what the values of the team are, and how best to communicate this,” says Crow.
The AOC re-branded the team’s look, its wattle-coloured crest now bringing a unity to its image and presentation. (“We are now one. One vision, one team, one identity,” reads the explanatory blurb.) In keeping with this, it set about developing strong ties with athletes across sports in an endeavour to instil a team-first culture well before anyone boards a plane for Brazil. “The Australian team only comes together for two weeks every four years,” says Crow. “Our biggest aim this Olympiad was to try and increase that exposure and that feeling of ‘team’ among all of our athletes, and to make sure athletes have a feeling of being something bigger than themselves right through the four-year cycle.”
Critical to this has been get-together sessions for aspiring 2016 Olympians across Australia such as the Road to Rio IGNITE series. These IGNITE events have not only given old Olympians the chance to share stories of the days when the Olympics was a pay-your-own-way honour, but they’ve also served to bring athletes from different sports together. Speakers have not only been champions, but also mostly anonymous Olympians who dared greatly but fell short of medal notoriety. Paralympians have also featured prominently – Crow cites the extraordinary former soldier Curt McGrath, a dual amputee para-canoeist, as one of the stand-out speakers of the events.
Chiller refers to the IGNITE sessions as a “culture and values roadshow”. The doors were open not just for stars, but athletes on the fringe of selection, or aspiring for future selection beyond Rio. It was about establishing a trust in the 2016 leadership group, defining a common purpose, and educating hopeful representatives about their shared Olympic past. “[The AOC] just can’t assume that every great athlete knows about the Betty Cuthberts and the Raelene Boyles and all the champions who have built our traditions,” says Chiller. “The IGNITE sessions were not about rules and regulations and policies. We did not mention one policy, one rule, one agreement, one stat dec. It was about creating the groundwork of what it means to be an Olympian for Australia.”
Coupled with IGNITE is the ASPIRE theme enveloping the Rio 2016 mission. ASPIRE stands for Attitude, Sportsmanship, Pride, Individual responsibility, Respect and Express yourself. As far as acronyms go, it’s not quite Olympian in execution, but its message is clear: this time we’re doing things better.
The theme of INSPIRE envelops the final pre-Rio phase of “one team” preparation, with INSPIRE sessions starting in late November. This, explains Chiller, is when athletes will learn of the nitty-gritty aspects of Rio representation: policies, responsibilities, potential penalties if they fail to live up to the behaviour expected by management and the Aussie public.
In approach, it’s easy to sense the jingoism of Oi! Oi! Oi! jollity has been replaced by a strategic Inc.! Inc.! Inc.! befitting a more professional, corporate sophistication associated with the team’s preparation. Yes, Laurie Lawrence was still doing his motivational thing at IGNITE sessions, but this is business now. (“I see myself as CEO of the team,” Chiller recently explained in an interview.) Crow is a lawyer, de Jong is a lawyer, Chiller a successful senior executive and a former student of Latin. Carpe the gold ones!
But the Games has always been business. And business demands results: the AOC’s sponsors aren’t lured by the promise of assisting young Aussies to prove themselves the 14th best in the world. So for all the laudable efforts around team building and culture-changing, what Chiller, Crow and other representatives will find themselves most regularly discussing before August is the AOC’s stated objective of Australia finishing in the top five on the medal table.
That’s a big ask: if we accept as a given that the United States, China and Russia will finish in the top five – something that has occurred at each Games since 1996, and even factoring in a potential medals drop-off by Russia in the wake of its demoralising athletics-led doping scandal – that effectively leaves Australia battling it out for two spots with the second tier of Olympic powers such as Germany, South Korea, France, Japan and the auld enemy, Great Britain, which won more than four times as many gold medals as we did in London. “It’s an aspirational goal,” Chiller admits. It’s also a problematic promotional device: it’s a great headline for now, but an obituary-in-waiting should Australia fall [far] short of this target. Further, it removes the relevance of the bulk of the Aussie team who won’t be in contention for gold medals. By trumpeting a top-five place, the AOC is facilitating just what it should not want mainstream media to do: focus on the peak champions at the expense of the efforts and community-engaging stories of the bulk of the team.
For history provides that if you want a top-five finish, you must set your sights on winning 15 gold medals – no team in 116 years of Olympic competition has reached this milestone at a Games and not secured a top-five placing. (See The Fab Fifteen)
Crow, Cate and Bronte Campbell, Mitch Larkin, Sally Pearson, Cameron McEvoy, Jessica Fox, Anna Meares, Mat Belcher and Will Ryan, Emily Seebohm, Jason Day, Caroline Buchanan, James Magnussen, the Kookaburras, Jared Tallent – these are the athletes who will be thrust front and centre for Rio. Gymnasts, judokas, volleyball players, boxers, divers, archers, track and field athletes not named Pearson? As always, not so much.
So why publicise the top-five target? ... It reminds one of the classic Far Side cartoon of two deer standing together in the forest, one with a painted target on his chest. “Bummer of a birthmark, Hal,” his mate says.
For her part, Crow recognises that the “subtleties” of the AOC projecting this goal may be lost in the maelstrom of modern media. “From an athlete’s point of view, setting a high target is really exciting,” she says. “I don’t see it as problematic ... [but] we don’t get there by fixating on the results, we get there by doing the everyday things really well.”
Chiller adds that a top-five finish is not the AOC’s only goal for its Rio 2016 team: it has also identified “life-best experience and unity of purpose” as other objectives for its athletes. However, she recognises the risk of the AOC being hoisted by its own press-release petard. “I am not saying [a top-five finish] is easy. But I’m not going to back away from it. I’m not going to lower the expectations and say, ‘Okay, let’s try and finish top ten.’
“We want a tough goal. We don’t want to back away from a challenge. I want our team going away with the mindset that we are good enough to achieve this.”
How then can Australia double its gold medal tally in four years? Or, to take the glass is half-full approach, how does it return to its golden standard of Sydney, Athens and Beijing? It starts, quietly, with the lucky dip good fortune of having aberration athletes of the physical talent and mental calibre of the champions listed above. Team culture and values, scientific training, effective management, etc. It can all count for little at a Games if the foundational talent is not present on a team.
It also, of course, wouldn’t hurt if some of our rivals for a top-five place didn’t excel in Brazil. Most critical will be the British performances because they will rub up against us in key medal sports such as cycling, rowing and sailing. The Brits won 29 gold medals in 2012, but retirements to idols such as Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton weakens their stocks. So, too, will the absence of the unforgettable support the British athletes received from the spectator stands in 2012.
Japan, gearing up for its Tokyo Games in 2020, and Germany and France, heavily investing in their own Olympic programs, will want to make further gains after good performances in 2012. A surprising but way-too-familiar nemesis for Australia could be New Zealand: it has emerged as a power in rowing and track cycling, and is the prohibitive favourite in both the men’s and women’s events as rugby sevens makes its Olympic debut in Rio.
“The number-one lesson in sport, whether you’re an athlete or a coach, is if another country is going to perform out of its skin, there is nothing you can do about it,” says Chiller. She raises a curious advantage Australia will have in Rio: necessity means we travel far better than European teams usually do. In what promises to be a challenging environment as the Olympic circus pitches its tent in a new part of the world, such a practical edge could be decisive.
Chiller, as positive and presentable a leader as the AOC has entrusted with a Games campaign, earns the last word. When asked what is the single message she hopes reaches supporters about this Olympic team before August, she opts for simplicity over sensationalism: “We will be going to Rio as best-prepared as we can be to ensure that the Australian public can be proud of us on and off the field.”
THE FAB FIFTEEN
The Australian Olympic Committee is targeting a top-five finish at Rio 2016 after slipping to tenth on the medal table at London 2012. In this Olympic cycle, it has invested broadly and bravely in a team culture of success across the 28 sports and 306 events of the Games.
But if it’s medals we’re ultimately chasing, specifically, gold medals, is the strategy stretched and flawed from the offset? Would it not have been time and money better spent to concentrate on the top-tier talent that will arrive in Rio with realistic gold medal ambitions?
The record book provides a tangible target for Australia to achieve a top-five finish. No Olympic team has ever won 15 gold medals and not finished in the top five at the end of a Games.
Does Australia have a Fab Fifteen in waiting? Here is a quick hit list of 15 events in which Australia has golden prospects come August.
Women’s 50m freestyle
Women’s 100m freestyle
Women’s 100m backstroke
Men’s 200m backstroke
Women’s 4x100m freestyle
The Campbell sisters, Cate and Bronte, may prove the premier sister act in Rio, and have world-beating form in the freestyle sprint events. Emily Seebohm teams up with the Campbells to provide further class to Australia’s relay ranks, and will have her best shot at an individual Olympic gold in the 100m backstroke. Mitch Larkin, winner of the 100m and 200m backstroke titles at the 2015 Worlds, could become only Australia’s second men’s backstroke gold-medallist after David Theile, the 1956 and 1960 100m champion.
The Kookaburras are the most tortured team in Australian Olympic history, and have now returned with a medal from the past six Games, highlighted by their only gold medal success in 2004. They are the world’s top-ranked team, with the Hockeyroos enjoying a pleasing resurgence in the women’s rankings.
Mathew Belcher teamed with Malcolm Page to win gold in London. Since then, he’s found a new partner in Will Ryan and they’ve proved the class of the fleet, winning a hat-trick of world titles.
Women’s single scull
Since winning two medals at London 2012, Kim Crow has twice won the world singles scull title, in 2013 and 2015. No Aussie woman has ever won a single scull gold, and 1948 was our last success in the men’s event.
Women’s team pursuit
Men’s road time trial
The remarkable Anna Meares will become the first Aussie female cyclist to compete in four Games if she reaches Rio. She’d be a major contender in both sprint events, entering as reigning Olympic champion in the sprint and 2015 world champion in the keirin. Australia’s women’s track depth is enviable, with Annette Edmondson leading a brilliant world title team pursuit squad. With BMX and mountain bike world titles already in the bag, Caroline Buchanan is desperate for a golden BMX Olympic moment. And Rohan Dennis has the legs and willpower to win Australia’s first time trial gold on the road.
Women’s K1 slalom
Jessica Fox won a silver medal in the women’s K1 slalom at London 2012 as a teenager, and has since scored her first senior world title in the event in 2014. (Not to mention three-straight C1 world titles from 2013 to 2015 when she’s traded a kayak (K) for a canoe (C). Sadly, there’s only a kayak white-water event on the Games program.)
Golf was last on the Games program in 1904, and for its return Australia will likely boast two contenders with Major-winning mettle and top-ranked pedigree: Jason Day and Adam Scott.
Men’s 50km walk
Would there be a more popular winner than Jared Tallent, silver-medallist in this event at the past two Games and at the 2015 worlds? Tallent beat everyone but since-disgraced Russian Sergey Kirdyapkin in London, and so won’t lack for motivation in Rio.