The Australian Gold medal deficit: Who is really to blame?

The Australian Gold medal deficit: Who is really to blame?


By Terri Slater


The debate surrounding our national performance at the recent Olympic games in Rio De Janiro, Brazil, is some of the most heated and critical of Australian sport. The question everyone is asking, from the Australian Sports commission (ASC), to the Australian Olympic committee (AOC), to Swimming Australia, and without forgetting the public and the athletes themselves is- where did it all go wrong? The backlash from the games has been quite severe; with some calling for athletes to pay back their training costs like a HECS debt, and others calling for CEO’s of sport to step down. A recent article written by The Australian journalist Nicole Jeffery attributes lack of funding as the key downfall to our national Olympic performance, while an article written by The Herald Sun writer Susie O’Brien asserts our very culture as a nation when it comes to participation versus winning as a key reason for Olympic failure. It is important to note that both pieces are evaluative and somewhat recommendatory arguments, that assess a multitude of angles and propose their own personal opinions toward the debate. While Jeffery’s article encompasses Australian Olympic sport as a whole, O’Brien’s piece focuses on Olympic swimming in particular, however both are extremely relevant to one another due to the emphasis on swimming as our the main source of gold medals for Australia. The articles are fundamentally opposite in nature, with both authors coming to extremely different conclusions in regards to their stance on our national performance and how it could be improved in the future.


Jeffery’s stance on the issue is clear from the lead of her article, Rio Olympics: Lack of funding key to poor Games outcome; she uses analogy to compare the backlash on Australian Olympic sport to a ‘crucifixion’, although “Just who is to be hoisted on the cross is still to be determined”. Thus, she is immediately addressing the theme of blame and ‘finger pointing’ that is present within both articles. She goes on to mention each Olympic entity that has laid blame on another for the poor Olympic outcome, referring to blame shifting as an Olympic sport. Jeffery continues to appeal to the facts- The gold medal hopefuls did not perform when it came down to it, particularly the swimmers, who attained only a ‘mere’ 3 Gold medals, although 8 athletes are ranked first in the world. Jeffery’s stance seems to be somewhat sympathetic towards the athletes, describing the underperformance as a “lot of near misses”, appealing to emotion in a sense, by connecting to the audience and communicating that the athletes themselves should not be blamed for the underwhelming outcome. Jeffery also employs appeals to precedent, referring to the Australian Olympic teams’ performances in London and Athens, to demonstrate that this year’s performance is in fact worse than others. Once she has provided clear background information to her main line of argument, she begins to assess the reasons for this downfall in Australian sport, with funding, or lack thereof, a key focus. Jeffery writes:

“Australian Olympic sport hasn’t had a significant increase in funding for a decade or more, so to some extent Favier’s job was to shift the deckchairs on a slow boat, by finding efficiencies to make Australia more competitive without spending any extra money.

He told the federal government what it wanted to hear, that it was possible to resurrect Australia’s competitiveness in the Olympic arena without spending more money. Governments love to be told they don’t need to spend more money to get a result.

But the reality is that if they want the glory they need to pay for it. Restructuring is not enough”.


Although Jeffery is initially critical of the ‘blame game’, it is interesting to observe how she herself puts some blame on AIS director Matt Favier, the leader of the Winning Edge program, as well as the AOC as an entire corporation-

“The AOC is all care and no responsibility here. It does not produce or develop athletes. It wants to call the shots, and it trumpets the fact that it doesn’t take government money, but it is completely reliant on government funding to the sports to produce the athletes who win the medals (or not). It’s happy to take the glory when the team shines, but it won’t take the blame when it doesn’t”.

Again, Jeffery is addressing the overriding theme of blame, essentially asserting that a combination of the Government’s unwillingness to donate money to the cause and the AOC’s ignorance toward responsibility.


Jeffery’s piece is based on a world-view or value system that cares about the politics of elite sport and is nationalistic by nature, in regards to Australia’s performance in international sporting competition. It is also very ethically- focused, and functions on the argument that Australian athletes, and consequently Australians, are being let down by the Government’s lack of investment in elite sport, and therefore the underlying warrant that this is unethical and needs to be changed. The audience is assumed to be an Australian, mature readership who are invested in the politics of sport, and/or the recent Olympic outcome, and the impact it has on our national sporting culture.

In regards to the article as a recommendatory as well as an evaluative argument, Jeffery affirms that more funding is the key to better Olympic performance, which could be achieved through the use of the lottery as a financial source, as it is in the U.K, who are “outspending Australia two to one in the medal race, which they are winning handsomely”.


In comparison, Susie O’Brien’s article, Rio Olympics 2016: Is an Australian culture of mediocrity behind our medal choke takes a completely different stance on the issue, focussing on the Australian culture of ‘participation is equal to winning’ particularly when it comes to swimming. From the outset of the piece, O’Brien takes a very hard-line and opinion dominated approach to the topic, writing:

“What happens when the choke goes beyond a joke?

Should Australians be paying $40 million to get just three gold medals, four silver and three bronze in the pool?

If each swimmer performed their 2016 best at the Games, we would have won five gold, eight silver and five bronze.

So on any count, a lot of money was spent on a pretty average outcome”.


From this excerpt, it is clear that O’Brien is essentially targeting an Australian tax paying, sport-invested readership, and trying to evoke a strong reaction from the public by directly appealing to an ethical persuasive technique. She supports her central claim that we as taxpayers are essentially funding mediocre athletes through quoting the amount of money going in comparison to the medals coming out of the Australian Olympic swimming campaign. O’Brien also makes an appeal to authority, also known as the veteran swimmer Shane Gould, whose viewpoint appears to be of a similar nature;

“As Gould — who is one of our greatest ever Olympic swimmers — told Radio National this morning, “maybe we need to rethink schools giving out ribbons for fifth place”.

I can see where she is coming from”

By referencing Gould’s interview, O’Brien is providing justification to support her own argument, which is positioned right before her most direct and potentially controversial claim-

“When it comes to the Olympics, all that really counts is the medals. That’s how we measure success.

No one cares how many individuals make their finals, or how many get placed in the top half of the heats, or how many come fifth or better in the semis.

If you don’t get a medal, you’re a loser in Olympic terms”.


Clearly, this series of statements is aimed at evoking a highly emotional response from the reader, either in agreement or disagreement. While the article is aimed at the taxpayer, I don’t believe it is seeking to change minds on the issue (due to lack of strong evidence/justification) but more to induce a debate over whether gold medals really are the only measure of success that matter when it comes to elite sport. O’Brien’s use of analogy between Olympic and school sport is an example of this- clearly Olympians are far more developed in their psychological sense of winning and participating than primary aged children, although perhaps our culture of rewarding children simply for the act of participating has had some long-term effects when it comes to the general Australian sporting culture, as opposed to that of other nations, such as The United States, The United Kingdom and China.


A key distinction between the two articles is the author’s view of the athletes themselves- while Jeffery refers to them quite sympathetically and puts no blame on them for lack of performance, O’Brien directly states “…it’s fair to say some of the members of the swimming team let us down, and let themselves down.

When it really counted they simply weren’t able to perform at their peak”. Again, O’Brien reinforces the huge cost of $40 million in taxpayer’s money, that simply ‘isn’t going to cut it’ with Australians. Essentially, O’Brien’s article is based on the world-view or value system that athletes must produce performances according to the funding they receive, and in this case, it should be Gold or nothing. In determining whether each article is conducted in good faith, and is clear and well rounded, it is evident that Jeffery is far more democratic in her views journalism writing as opposed to O’Brien, who is far more hard-line and direct in expressing her opinions. In a sense, the second article is an informal fallacy, due to its’ lack of strong evidence or justification to support its’ claims, in comparison to the first, which offers a more well-rounded point of view on the issue.


An analysis of both articles subsequently uncovers the view that there are many aspects of blame for our poor performance as a nation at the 2016 Rio Olympics, being a ‘nation of mediocrity’ and having a ‘lack of funding’ being only a few in the grand scheme of Australian sporting organisations. While both articles are highly evaluative and in some ways recommendatory, it is clear they take highly opposing view points in regards to who is really at fault for such a disappointing result. When viewing both articles together, however, it is clear that both pieces function on the underlying assumption that Australia’s underwhelming Olympic performance was due to more than just bad luck, illness or nerves, but some sort of systematic issue that is deep-rooted in our national sporting culture.















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