Fools and gold: Australia’s first AFL Olympics

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Channel Nine set the commentary bar extremely low and did Olympic sports a huge disservice, says former athlete Luke Sulzberger.

Having won a gold Logie himself, it satisfies a certain illogic that Karl Stafanovic should have been at the helm of Australia’s charge towards a more elusive kind of gold. So, on the eve of the London Olympic Games, the Today show co-host was left alone to interview former 400m champion Michael Johnson. Always fascinated to hear athletes talk about anything other than themselves, I turned up the volume.

Stefanovic, who speaks with the sciolistic tone of a man who has spent years dealing with diverse subject matter at a moment’s notice, was asking after Sally Pearson’s chances on the track, in light of a preparation he described as “not her best”.  Unfortunately for Karl, and his audience, by any mode of analysis Pearson had not only her most outstanding preparation ever — but potentially the best lead up to an Olympics of any female hurdler in history, resulting in, that’s right, an Olympic record.

I can only guess that Karl had just joined the rest of us on Planet Sally during the week prior when she had placed second in a London Diamond League meeting. Atrocious weather conditions and a fall during warm-up aside, Pearson ran a time at that meeting just 0.05 slower than her performance at the same time last year.

Whether Stefanovic had considered this or had seen any of her races in a blistering domestic and early European season, including two 12.40 runs – a time that would have won all but two Olympics and, until the world championships last year, a time she had never run – we cannot know. One thing we can, if only from Johnson’s face, is that he was plain wrong.

It would be a long two weeks.

Enduring a man without any sports broadcasting background as the anchor for our national Olympic coverage shouldn’t and, sadly, most likely doesn’t, surprise us anymore. Channel Nine and her commercial rivals have long been distracted by a personality popularity contest. Stefanovic as a Gold Logie winner is Nine's shining star. (A Gold Logie is the top honour in Australian television industry; a popularity award polled from readers of TV Week — a strange magazine which runs stories about television characters as if they are real people and is read mainly by young women who presumably have too much time on their hands to spend it all in reality.)

As disappointing he and his fellow ‘network personalities’ might be on home-improvement and current affairs shows, it turns out they are liable when shoved over into the highly specialised world of sport — and guilty on several counts when this happens to be the Olympics.

Twitter was awash during the games with criticism for Stefanovic’s performance, with kinder comments labelling him “out of his depth”, ”idiotic”,  “underprepared” and “torture”. At an event where the available statistics would challenge Charlie Babbitt, it was clear by the second week of competition that he had done little more than brush up on Australian medal prospects, whiten his teeth, and read from notes (sadly also not a strong point, our Triple Jump representative Henry Frayne is now known nationally as Harvey Fray and Slalom was renamed ‘Slaylom’).

Australia, perhaps encouraged by two dimensional analysis and inept commentary, is not a nation that reacts well to international failure and Stefanovic should perhaps be defended as a victim of his own confidence, and/or network incompetence. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, if only because he was aware he was not the best choice, describing Nine as suffering from a lack of Olympic expertise, “because we haven’t had the games for years” (Herald Sun, July 25). It was an indictment more than an explanation.

If the quality Olympic sports coverage has started to sink in a sea of ‘light’ personality-based entertainment, then one sport has not only escaped but caught a wave and rode it like Kelly Slater. AFL, never going to lack for participants who converse exclusively in undemanding banter, has made an art form of turning very ordinary men into Gods — and it’s not just the players. TV talk shows, morning radio, quiz-shows, and a game show where ordinary folk are punched into a giant pool by an electronic fist, AFL “media personalities” are everywhere. So much so, indeed, that their grand marshall, Eddie McGuire has it as an alternate surname. What is different about these men, and the previous generation of football commentators, is that they often don’t commentate much football (Nine actually has no Football games to cover) and despite, or perhaps because, not having had playing careers themselves, they seek to be engaged in the sport at every level.

President of the Collingwood Football Club, McGuire inexplicably led both Nine’s and Foxtel’s coverage of the Games. Having hosted an Olympics before – the 2010 Winter addition –  he suffers from no apprehension that he may not be the best bloke for the job. That ‘preformance’ (Eddie’s term) earned him international condemnation, but did little to douse his blazing hubris, or the trust of the network he used to head. In Vancouver, McGuire – having little of use to say about the competition – took aim at the male figure skaters and their perceived sexual preference, sarcastically claiming that one “would be popular down on the construction site”.

Not working on a construction site himself, but probably owing several, McGuire told us a lot more about himself than any of his targets. To describe him as an overachieving beta male would be to ignore how he would like to be seen — as an ordinary Aussie bloke with a love of ‘real’ sport. Problem is, he is neither. Eddie is a Football Executive with a love of football. The Australian public has consequently just endured their first ‘Footy Olympics’.

Whether it be explaining the women’s marathon participants not-so-extraordinary (but presumably more meaningful) connection to AFL alumni — something he felt obliged to mention several times, despite not being able to pronounce 'Trengove’; recalling accounts of bumping into Aussie exports in London restaurants who “just wanted to talk about the footy” (I mean, who cares for the Olympics, right?); describing victors as having “flogged” their opponents and losers as having been “being kicked in the ass”; asking breaststroke medallist Christian Sprenger  what sort of preparation went  on “in the sheds”; or strangely, and inappropriately, shouting “the bad boy’s up, the bad boy’s up”, when  Foxtel presenter Matt Shirvington tried to introduce Nick D’Arcy (it would appear his definition of ‘bad’ was formulated sometime after players at his club were found to be associates of a Hells Angels murderer, investigated for rape,  and responsible for the brutal bashing of an innocent man outside a Port Melbourne nightclub ); Eddie's selective but relentless capacity  to measure everything with a football yardstick was unanimously denounced on social media.

I have enough decorum (and respect for your imagination) not to repeat the fall-out from Twitterverse here; suffice to say the length of his yardstick wasn’t the only thing being questioned. With AFL "news" coverage in most states so saturated that newspapers actually drip football on the furniture (although it is good to know Chris Judd hasn't suffered from any additional colds since his wife started work at the hospital), it is bizarre the few moments afforded to Olympic sports every four years should be encroached upon by a man seemingly intent upon furthering an AFL marketing agenda. I can only suggest that he can't help it.

At home, having invited in the insightful calls of Robert De Castella or Steve Moneghetti at every major championships marathon since 1992, I eventually decided it was better with the volume off — though not before attempting to satisfy my thirst for the sounds of the 30th Olympiad with some rowing, only to be greeted by Footy Show compatriot James Brayshaw who, not having encountered the concept of a first round heat in the AFL, was yelling so manically at an Aussie crew who happened to be  leading the race, that I gave up.

When the bar set by poor performers is low, the requirement of the agile to jump off a full run up is lessened — but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t.

Caroline Wilson, Fairfax’s chief football writer and recent inductee to the world of referred footy celebrity (now starring on Nine’s Footy Classified), decided to wage in with a front page article at the onset of the games describing our athletes as whingers (The Age, July 27th). I’ll forgive her for missing the vital point that the real culture shift of 2012 is social media (namely Twitter), with real time access to the unpunctuated frustration of our athletes, and not protests over selection or room assignments.

What is inexcusable for a journalist of Wilson’s capacity is that she broke the unwritten rule of trying to compare the prowess of an athlete who competed in a sport played exclusively in a domestic league (namely Jason Akermanis) to an international representative (John Steffensen). In this new sport of apples and oranges Wilson awarded first place to Akermanis (whose indiscretions were not selection based, but rather unsolicited homophobic rants in the country’s most-read paper), describing his performance as “elite solid” and Steffansen’s as “mediocre at an international level”. It is hard to know where to begin, and more to the point where to end, with nonsense like that. Suffice to say I would love to hear Wilson prove that Akermanis is the third greatest midfielder we have ever seen, or to walk me through his epic 2006 triumph over every footballer in the British Empire. But I don’t engage in the unfathomable. What is concerning is both that Wilson felt she was making some sort of contribution, and that the opinion of a football journalist, unfamiliar with her subject matter or not, is automatically considered worthy of a front page. I decided to suspend my subscription for the duration of the games.

I grant you, it would be fun to see Wikipedia sue McGuire and Stefanovic for mass copyright infringement; and if we had to, we could probably endure Paul Sherwen impersonations at future Olympics (one of which hysterically ended in Abraham Lincoln being named as a British Prime Minister). And I dare say, with the initial trimming of journalistic fat and eventual liposuction at Fairfax and News Limited now assured, we could even learn to digest more athletics articles by football journalists.  But I suspect there is more at stake than that.

Olympic sport (I’ll admit here my specific allegiance is to Track and Field, but I trust you to extrapolate) – and, indeed, any sport that is not Australian Rules Football – is compromised by this policy of notoriety over expertise. The message we, and our kids, get from having a misinformed breakfast show host interviewing our medallists, and a footy executive – who has little more than a casual, dare I say, personal interest in athletics – commentating our events is this: Olympic athletes are no more significant than as cute morning news pieces and what they do is a bit of a laugh. When that executive consistently speaks with reverence and insight about one sport only, despite it not even being on the program, the message is indisputable; no amount of feigned enthusiasm can disguise it.

Malignancy is the always the most devastating when written off as benign. In light of this, a comment about our new star sculler Kim Crow should have us heading for a check-up. McGuire was at pains to mention that he used to see Crow training at the Westpac Centre before the Victorian Institute of Sport was moved (Eddie loves to name-drop and does it in a way that implies the name was lucky to have had contact with him).

Eddie MCGuire and John Brumby showing their primary allegiances.

What he neglected to mention is the Victoria Institute of Sport relocation and the eviction of Athletics Victoria from its historical and spiritual home at Olympic Park was the result of a less than transparent 2008 deal between himself and former Premier and Collingwood supporter, John Brumby. This deal secured the iconic ground and Westpac Centre, surely one of the most valuable pieces of public real estate in Melbourne, as an exclusive training venue for the Collingwood Football Club. Crow, the VIS and Athletics Victoria were moved to a venue in Albert Park. A Tasmanian friend of mine recently spoke of the new track as source of renewed appreciation for facilities at home — at least in Hobart you can see the on-track action from the grand stand.

No amount of enthusiastic utterance about “Matthew (didn’t you mean Martin?) Dent” at the conclusion of the Olympic Marathon could speak as loudly as Eddie’s silence on this topic. His cynical appointment to the board of Athletics Australia is almost a fable — the sheep’s clothing being replaced with a black and white striped guernsey.  (If I were him, I would have at least gone to the effort of learning the names of our athletes or how to pronounce Usain, but I guess I’m just more thorough).

Such stupidity on behalf of the current athletics administration in the face of declining participation and funding and the rise and rise of the AFL only serves to indicate a level of desperation. It is sheer foolishness to think that a man so doggedly and ruthlessly devoted to football and his own media profile is ever going to be able to, or want to, give any more than a cursory interest in another sport. Let’s not forget that both AFL and athletics pool from the same well of physically gifted young men. For mine, it's not enough for the original and most noble sport of the Olympiad — and I could be just referring to the commentary. If McGuire really cared about athletics, or wanted to see Crow, he could – after all, they used to live next door – but he prefers it just once every four years.

The Flame of the Games of the 30th Olympiad was extinguished a few days ago. Somewhere in London, cheat sheets are being tossed into recycling bins and those who brought the spectacle into our homes are patting themselves on the back for a job well done. And it really was the greatest of shows; but, then again, it always is — human endeavour and the universality of determination can be depended on for that. And, let’s be clear, it’s a spectacle that has never been immune from those seeking to profit from its capacity to inspire and captivate (big shout out to McDonalds for their cutest subversive marketing campaign yet, Angelina from Sydney is adorable!). But if it is to inspire, whether it be a child to take up swimming, or for you to walk around the block then it probably should sound, as well as look, like the domain of champions that it is.

Where I’m from, we knew our champions names, we knew their stories, we thought what they did in the arena was more significant than an association they may have with some bloke who plays for West Coast, we travelled some distance to see them compete, we didn’t compare their achievements to the incomparable in an attempt to diminish them, and we didn’t use their preciously small time in the public spotlight to market ourselves or a sport we think is preferable. But I’m starting to sound like a man that believes in sportsmanship — and that may be a race that’s not run anymore. We’ll have to see.

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